We could walk for ever

Forty years ago today, I sat in my family’s living room in San Jose, watching ghostly black-and-white images and listening to a message from as far away as any message ever delivered by a human voice. The little things are what I remember; the furniture, where the tv sat. The color of the drapes. And […]

Forty years ago today, I sat in my family’s living room in San Jose, watching ghostly black-and-white images and listening to a message from as far away as any message ever delivered by a human voice.

The little things are what I remember; the furniture, where the tv sat. The color of the drapes. And my brother’s screaming tantrum, while Neil Armstrong said one small step.

The universe changed. The sci-fi world inside a seven year old boy’s head was, suddenly, real, and possible.

All of us have moments that sear into memory forever; in a real way, moments that define generations. Where were you when Kennedy was killed, people used to say, for the generation just before me. My parents told me about about hearing serious, breathless voices reporting over the radio – A day that will live in infamy. Some of you, younger than me maybe, talk about Kurt Cobain’s death that way, and almost everyone I know over the age of 10 remembers the exact instant when heard, or saw, or read about two planes hitting two towers in New York City.

Some of these moments change the world; some only define a generation. I say only as if that carried less significance; yet for some, the death of Elvis or Janis, Buddy or Kurt or Jimi, Jim or even Michael, may be the day your music died. The point is that they’re those moments we will always remember, for whatever reason. Time and place and feeling burned like a brand into us.

But some of these moments, in a real and permanent way, do change the world. Who knows, when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sailed his fleet of aircraft carries toward an archipelago in the middle of the pacific, if he had any inkling that he was steaming toward the hinge point in the most significant war of his century, possibly the most significant war in human history. The nineteen hijackers in 2001 may have been in the grips of some delusion of grandeur; personally, they were simply fools attacking an irrelevant symbol, for the imagined glory of a mythical god. Yes, they cost many lives and billions of dollars; but the impact that lasts, decades later, will be changes to the political and social landscapes of the United States, the middle east, Europe; in a sense, the entire world. Industries were permanently changed. The word Terrorism entered the daily lexicon of ordinary people. Governments fell.

Violence, fear, destruction, and death defined both of these events. And ripples continue to roll outward from them; even now, 64 years later, Perl Harbor and WWII still define much of the relationship between Japan and the USA.

But some events change history, not with destruction, but with creation.

June 20, 1969, an entire world looks up at the moon, physically, or virtually, and say, we’re up there. Men stand beyond that unimaginable gulf, we realize; they may be looking up into their own sky, and seeing this blue and green ball. They may be walking, leaving footprints where no living thing has, ever.

Children looked up and said, I have no limits. I can go up, and never stop. I can fly. Men and women looked up and said, that’s why I do what I do, making what I make, learning what I learn. For one moment, we had won an almost inconceivable battle. We’d done the impossible. We waved flags and claimed a victory in an imaginary race, but every pair of eyes, every pair of ears, every mind that was in any way able to hear or see or read Neil Armstrong’s words, knew we’d just won some intangible victory over space and impossible odds.

Every scientist I know, every engineer, every writer or teacher or pilot; every one who was old enough to know men stood there above our heads, felt things change around them. We felt the limits move unimaginably far back.

We could do anything.

The generation who witnessed that moment went on to invent almost every single thing upon which our lives depend today. Medicines, weapons, tools. Computers, networks. We invented ways to fly, ways to go to space, ways to live in space.

And ways to die, tragically and pointlessly; proving that no matter how many years have come since, space is still a dangerous place, a place we don’t belong.

I was seven years old when Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong lifted off a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, and already, I lived only for space and adventure. I played with my G.I. Joe space capsule, watched Star Trek and Lost in Space with my father, and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would be up there one day.

At 7:39pm PST on Sunday July 20, 1969 (forty years almost to the minute, as I type this), my family were clustered around a TV set that seems absurdly small now, watching a picture that was all but incomprehensible with snow and interference. And I was as glued to that image as I ever have been to anything, before or since.

Behind me on the couch, my brother Ian – five and a half years old – was in the middle of a screaming tantrum. He’d given himself a nose bleed, and, twenty nine years before the invention of TiVo, was demanding at the top of his lungs that we make the TV wait until he could watch it.

My memory of the event is rich in detail. Ian’s insane screams and wails, my parents frustration as he distracted them from the event; my own confusion and elation, (and irritation) as I tried to make sense of the snowstorm on the TV and Armstrong’s brilliant, nonsensical, unforgettable quote over my brother’s howling.

That night I lay in my bed, looking at G.I. Joe and Major Matt Mason, and all my other space related toys and books, and I imagined heroic men in space suits cooler than anything artists or toy makers could think of. I wondered what they were doing, where and when they slept, what they ate, and how they went to the bathroom.

Over the next days, I watched every piece of television news I could get; I read the papers with my parents. I ate and drank and dreamed words like Apollo, Eagle, LEM, Mare Tranquillitatis, Command Module.

I’m not sure, once the country had gotten used to the idea, gotten over the wonderment, that most of us really knew how much human history has just changed. I’m not sure most americans, busy with work, with school, with getting by, scoring, getting laid, thought about the hardware left behind in the deep thick dust, about the men who’d gone up there, about the ones on the ground working non stop to get back again, only better, and safer.

But for a generation of children and young adults, that was all we thought about; the gateway that had just opened. The fundamental difference the universe had after.

Eight years later, Star Wars premiered; movie makers who’s sat in front of their televisions like I had, had turned it into mythology that would leave it’s own explosive impact. That same year, the first space shuttle, named Enterprise by science fiction fans and young man who lived and breathed space ships flew it’s first test mission, as far beyond the Gemini and Apollo craft as they were beyond bi-planes.

In the years following the Apollo program, technology advanced in almost every field upon which the high tech industry depends. The study of power, physics, heat; battery technology. Things as basic as the teflon that coats our pans, the chips that drive digital wacthes and iPods and cell phones. Aerodynamics which are used everywhere from airplane design to cars to bicycles to speeding up swimmers in the water and skaters on the ice.

There’s been a great deal of dark history for Nasa and the space program in recent years. Budget cuts in the mid seventies caused stagnation in culture and technology; we’ve seen two massive, entirely preventable shuttle disasters, and no forward progress on what’s next in decades. Nasa, like any under-funded, over-worked government agency, began to make choices based on protecting itself instead of reaching out and up. Today we fund Nasa at a fraction of the (effective) budget they had to spend in the mid sixties; and worse, we began to say, as a culture, space? it doesn’t matter. We felt we needed to worry about here and now and how I’ll pay for a tank of gas.

Today, while I should have been catching up on work, squashing bugs after some weekend network updates, I instead watched videos of the Lunar Module docking with the Command Module, remembered building plastic replicas of them with polystyrene and glue and paint.

I’m not sure when I, personally, said goodbye to my certainty that I’d walk up on the moon some day. Maybe it got lost in my adolescent discovery of girls and music and drugs; maybe it was when I realized that astronauts weren’t the daredevils of fiction, but in fact were dedicated students and military men. I wasn’t a good student, hating authority and having no attention for anything that wasn’t interesting to me at that exact moment. I never forget that dream though; when I glide through deep water, the images of men and women in zero g comes to mind. When I watch video of multi-billionaire ‘space tourists’ visiting the international space station, I feel a searing envy, not over the money they have to waste, but that they have what it takes to go out to the far frontiers of human experience.

What changed in 1969 was that, for the first time in human history, we were there on the outer edges with adventurers and explorers. No one saw Richard Francis Burton search for the source of the Nile; no one but a few sailors were witness to Captain Cook’s ‘discovery’ of most of the islands in the south pacific. And in both cases, the discovery was one culture finding what another culture already knew.

But in June of 1969, an entire world watched and listened, in real time, as one single foot stepped on a square foot of dust no human foot has ever trod, no human eye had ever seen. And we knew it minutes after the explorer himself. The world of 1969 was decidedly short on frontiers; Neil Armstrong and his compatriots defined, for every human being alive, where the frontier was.

It’s going to be a long time until someone moves that line. When it moves, the universe is going to change again.

backpiece: sixth session

Sixth session. Shading is almost done, color is starting to enter the picture. I actually had no clue what this looked like til I got this picture, I couldn’t get a good angle even with a mirror. Click to embiggen.

Sixth session. Shading is almost done, color is starting to enter the picture. I actually had no clue what this looked like til I got this picture, I couldn’t get a good angle even with a mirror.

Click to embiggen.

full_back_session_six.jpg ship_close_small.jpg

cobwebs and biomechanics

I’ve had my share of hallucinations in my time. Both the pure-fatigue type (which consist mainly of non-persistent but repeating peripheral visions), and the chemically induced type which can be persistent, but also include a distinct muzzy-headedness, and often don’t repeat. Last night, though, I experienced a wholly unexpected side effect of a medication i […]

I’ve had my share of hallucinations in my time. Both the pure-fatigue type (which consist mainly of non-persistent but repeating peripheral visions), and the chemically induced type which can be persistent, but also include a distinct muzzy-headedness, and often don’t repeat.

Last night, though, I experienced a wholly unexpected side effect of a medication i take semi-regularly.

I suffer insomnia sometimes; not consistent, but often enough that it’s a factor in my life. Sometimes this is good, because I used to get a lot of writing done after 2am, with bleary red eyes and fevered mind. More recently though, it’s been more the in-bed-on-the-edge-of-sleep kind; the kind where worries dominate and the brain gets stuck in repeating loops.

So on occasions, I use sleep aids which easily gets me past that portal to the land of dream.

Now, hallucinations are known side effects of certain meds; I see that every time I read the labels and warnings (which I obsessively do; I research every med I take, and every med my friends and family take, just because pharmacology fascinates me). BUt I’ve never experienced a single hallucination from normal sleep meds.

Last night, I had a full-blown hallucinatory experience, from a very normal dose (10mg) of a very normal med (@mb1en, spelled that way to avoid spammers).

I was watching the tail end of this week’s the fashions show, bravo’s project runway knockoff. And as the show ended and I turned off my teevee, I began to see ghostly cobwebs reach out from the still glowing teevee toward my ceiling fan.

I looked around the bed, and there seemed to be similar cobwebs on on the bed and, and then they began to stretch out onto the walls.

I looked at my bedside lamp; in bright light, I saw nothing other than a very slight haze. But in shadow, the general moving, drifting webbiness increased.

“I’m starting to hallucinate,” I said.

I began to describe the visuals to my nearly-sleeping bedmate, who tolerantly said ‘go to sleep’. But as I looked around, I found my wall paper (which is covered with a deeply-detailed, dark leopard print, as can be seen in the background of this image) was beginning to breath and roil, and then manifest in living, dragon-like shapes which would move as I did (likely it was my shadow and shifting point of vierw that animated it; the motion generally ceased when I held still).

I got up to pace around the room, wanting to explore what I was seeing. Close to the wall, the paper’s patters became blowing prairie grass, so vivid I felt I should feel it moving. Yet to my fingers, it was cool and papery-smooth. My eyes retained the visual of blowing fur or grass, but the experience wasn’t the least bit tactile.

I turned on bright overhead lights, and was left only with haziness; but when I turned the light out, all the visuals returned.

One corner of the room began to manifest as a sort of bio-mechanical, moving figure; made of webwork, but some sort of intricate flexible metal spider web. The shape resembled a witch or scarecrow, and again, it moved with my movements, breaking down into hazy cobweb when I moved close, but re-assembling into a consistent form when I walked away. Lights cleared it completely.

I turned and looked into my closet, where a figure stood – and this was the first one I actually found alarming. What looked like some sort of three-musketeers swashbuckler all in black, with a broad-brimmed hat. He grinned, though only grin was visible, no eyes. He bent his head and then faded into the shelving as I moved close, one of my hats and a pair of my boots clearly the source of the vision. I saw that only once, but it was startlingly vivid.

I prowled the room for several minutes; the experience was delightfully puzzling; never have I experienced hallucinations so consistent and visually organized. I roamed the rest of the house, still seeing creeping cobwebs and movement in shadows, but nothing in bright light (I think my daughters guinea pigs thought I was death from above when I tried to pet them, but I wanted to feel the webby trails they were creating as they scuttled and squeaked.)

I tried looking at my face in a mirror, and saw nothing but sleepy eyes and vague haze. Whatever I was seeing clearly had a light threshold. And I began to feel too sleepy to continue investigating what I was seeing. I went to bed and turned out the lights, and darkness obliterated any further experience. “I wish I could write this down now, so I don’t forget any of it,” I think were my last words before I drifted off.

—-

The most interesting things about the experience, for me, were that I felt completely lucid; I wasn’t high, or confused. I was sleepy, because that was the intent of the medication. But I wasn’t befuddled, so my attempts to define the difference between visual and tactile stimulation felt organized, almost scientific. The other thing was that the medications I was on – teh sleep med, above, and an anti-inflammatory I sometimes take a bedtime for my achy shoulder – are things I’ve taken many times, separately and together. So I have no explianation for why the hallucinations manifested so strongly this one night. I’m puzzled about it, and curious about a repeat of the same experience. The sleeping dose I took was on the higher side (I usually take a half, but a whole 10mg isn’t unusual). I tend to have a high resistance to medications, so this amount wasn’t anything Id’ have ever expected a visual side effect from.

I remain curious.

I don’t belive in writer’s block, Neil Gaiman said

“I don’t belive in writer’s block”, Neil Gaiman said. “I belive that what writers get, is ‘stuck’.” “Writers, you see, are very good at convincing people of things. What that means is that when they get stuck, they prefer something grand and dramatic; ‘I have writers block‘ sounds very much better that ‘I’m stuck’.” The […]

“I don’t belive in writer’s block”, Neil Gaiman said. “I belive that what writers get, is ‘stuck’.”

“Writers, you see, are very good at convincing people of things. What that means is that when they get stuck, they prefer something grand and dramatic; ‘I have writers block‘ sounds very much better that ‘I’m stuck’.”

The quote above – mis-quote actually, because I’m quoting from memory and can’t possibly have gotten it right – was something Neil said at a reading last year in Palo Alto. And it got a huge laugh, I think more from the writers in the crowd than anyone else. Because writers know how true the statement is, that we’re very good at convincing people of things.

However, I don’t agree with him about the block.

It’s very glib, for example, for musicians to assert that it’s easy to play an instrument. It’s easy for those annoying people with perfect pitch to tune a guitar. That’s because they happen to have been born with a gift, which they then developed So, sure, it’s effortless for them.

The thing, though, is that not everyone has that pitch. Some have to work very long and very hard to develop it. I can, barely, and with a great deal of work, get a guitar vaguely close to ‘in tune’. That’s taken years, and a lot of practice at detecting differences in pitch. I had to teach my brain to sort of what my ear couldn’t.

Some people are born storytellers. They drop out of the womb screaming, and from that moment, the language needs to get out. Gaiman is one such; he bleeds stories. He has more ideas that any three normal writers, and can’t stop having ideas. He had to become a writer, because what else, in these days, can someone like that do? It was either than or be the guy at the end of the bar who, for the cost of a pint, will tell you his and anyone else’s life stories.

Some of us learned this craft the hard way. And it never, ever comes easy. Tobias Wolf, in a talk he gave in Menlo Park, remarked how he envied those writers for who ‘the story just writes itself’. Because, he said, not a single word he ever wrote came easy. He sweated and worked over every syllable.

For me, this is something that comes only when my brain goes into a sort of linguistic overdrive, and when I can then direct that into typed characters on a screen. Usually, I can’t. When the inspiration comes, as often as not, I have no way to stop and put it down, or lack the focus to retain an idea for more than moments. Sitting down to write is almost never productive; ideas rarely flow.

Part of this, certainly, is simple discipline; I can’t seem to find a way to sit down every day and type. If I did, the routine would help, lubricating the creative mind by making the simple act of typing coherent paragraphs routine. By decoupling the physical act of writing from the creation itself, I’d find less inertia in beginning.

So is this writer’s block? Or is this just a bad habit; is this just a time management issue?

I’d argue with Neil; if he sits down and stares at a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and feels defeated, feels his mind drain as empty as that white sheet, that’s The Block. Neil’s talking about that moment in a story – and any writer has been there – when you say, crap, what happens now? how do I get from point A to point C? What’s my B? And I’ve been there; when I was writing the last section of Wanton, I hit a hard wall in the last scene. I couldn’t get the characters from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’. That story was a runaway freight train for me before that point; I knew at every step what was happening next. But I found myself up a tree with no way down. I (metaphorically) tore my hair, called myself a hack, wanted to throw my computer through a window (which isn’t easy with a sparcstation). I walked away. And then I came back, threw away my re-writes, got out my first draft, and found the hinge point where the wall came in. I backed up a paragraph or two, and started over. And it came together as well as anything I’ve ever written.

Stuck isn’t the same, though, as block. Because stuck can be solved by simply back-tracking or re-thinking (and I say ‘simple’ as if it were easy; it’s not easy). Block is different. Stuck means you don’t have quite the right tool, or can’t choose between several. Blocked, though, means you have no tools. None at all.

That’s how it feels to be profoundly blocked; you open your writer’s toolkit and find nothing but dust, spider nests and the detritus of scorched and broken adjectives. You find no theme, no allegory, not even well-worn plot device. And no matter how many times you open that box, you continue to find nothing.

It’s a profoundly frustrating feeling. As if you’d misplaced something, and can’t for all your brain wracking and pacing and retracing of steps, recall where it is.

That is the feeling I’ve had for many, many months; paths well worn back to that empty toolbox, and almost always, finding nothing.

There’s no single solution to the problem. Today, I solved it by sitting in my car by an empty suburban park, someplace where I found no internet connection. I solved it by playing music down low, turning off my phone, and beginning by using someone else’s words to build momentum.

And yet I’ve said nothing; still, it’s better than saying nothing silently.

Le Chagrin

I just ran across what I find to be a stunning collection of artistic erotic images (pretty porn), on a Tumblr blog called “Le Chagrin”. This site is decidedly NSFW, so don’t click if your boss is standing behind you – http://chagrin.tumblr.com/ What I like about this site – aside from just pure hotness – […]

I just ran across what I find to be a stunning collection of artistic erotic images (pretty porn), on a Tumblr blog called “Le Chagrin”.

This site is decidedly NSFW, so don’t click if your boss is standing behind you – http://chagrin.tumblr.com/

What I like about this site – aside from just pure hotness – is that it’s a completely non-themed collection defined by one thing; beauty. Every single picture I’ve seen is artistically gorgeous. But it doesn’t suffer from the tendency some ‘artistic’ erotica sites have, of mistaking demure and soft-core for artistic; many of these pictures are profoundly hard-core (there’s plenty of fucking, plenty of pegging, plenty of cock-sucking and come). But there’s also a lot of romantic imagery; that’s one of the things I love. There are photos of couples kissing, embracing, and even sleeping.

There are images where the erotic content is implied, and many where it’s front and center. The selections below are chosen because they’re all work safe, but trust me, the first page you hit from the link above is a profoundly hot pegging image, so don’t be fooled by these.

(Thanks to the beautiful and talented Monica for sending me a link to this site)