Sunday, October 19, 2008

Notes from Winchester

I am sitting on a full-to-the-gills flight from Washington-Dulles to San Francisco and am crowded against the wall by a charming but very fat young woman who is sleeping through this sardine can. From time to time I have to put my right arm in the air because there is nowhere else for it.

United has managed to lose my luggage three times in a row now. I noticed ... too late, obviously ... that my baggage ticket was inscribed with the name of one Gavin Brown who is heading ... egawd ... to Johannesburg, and so, apparently, is my bag. The man in front of me in the check-in line had a red passport, and that has to have been Gavin. I guess the idiot at the counter didn't clear the name or something from the computer ... I had kiosk-checked-in my seating assignments, so no red flags. A fine customer service person, Sharon, at Washington Dulles headed off to head off my baggage. She thinks she got it, but no guarantees, and I get to find out in SFO.

Three times in a row. Life's like that.

Part of what bugs me in that is that once your luggage is lost, you leave the Internet world and head back to paper form world. I know that they have all my data in the computer ... I know when they look up my record that they can not only find my Social Security Number, but also probably have access to the NSA-screened calls I make to various other skeptics and atheists obviously unconvinced that what we need is to Palinize our security systems. Crude joke. Crude world.

I just want my bags delivered with me just once in 2008. Perhaps I will have to find somewhere else to fly if I am going to take that final shot at victory. Perhaps United will pay for that.

Visiting the aged parents is a tough and tender thing. I cannot stay as long as I would want, and especially as long as they want. The day of departure hangs over us from the moment I arrive. They live in a near-perfect senior housing complex in Winchester with a mob of the sweetest other aged p's you could imagine. They have their little dog, Hershey, and they have two sons within hailing distance. But Dad is almost 7 years out from a stroke, and life is hard work. Our visits break the monotony, I think, not to mention provide some love and comfort. But when the end of the fun is promised by the beginning, it is tough.

Life's like that.

I seem to say that to Mother a lot when I am around ... life's like that.

Sister and bro-in-law are on an around-the-world celebration of their 33 years of being together, most of those years having been spent in Australia. Sister and I take up as if we had not been apart for more than a day or two. But it was very cool to reconnect with bro-in-law whom I have not seen in almost exactly a decade. Funny the convergences that happen between dissimilar but not unalike souls. I suppose the fact that he is attracted to my sister predisposes him and me to have similar valences ... not exactly orientations or perspectives, but valances in the sense of wavelengths. If you are a physicist reading this, please roll your eyes and be appreciative of the fact that at least we-types believe in science even when we abuse its terminologies in our quest to concretize our humanism.

Life's like that.

Speaking of physics, I have rolled through a copy of Scientific American over the course of two airports today, and swam through the article on loop gravity which appears to propose that we replace the idea of the Big Bang with the Big Bounce. Sounds cool. The article wandered about the question of whether there was a pre-existing Universe that collapsed on itself and, if so, could we find traces of its history in our present Universe. I say "yes" ... that is the humanist response. Theists would have to go there too, I suspect. But the religious must glower "No".

I like to read Scientific American on flights, and I especially enjoy the cosmological arguments. Not because I grok them in any deep way, but because they inspire that poetry-of-the-spheres thing. Again, physicists, I accept your eye-rolling, and I obey ... but I plan to sneak back to my poetry as soon as you look away. Life's like that ... physicists beware.

Crowded in here, my right arm starting to ache ... and, christ, a ceaselessly nattering child babbling behind me, occasionally kicking the back of the seat. I half expect the little shite to pull out a drum and start banging. Still, I have a window seat and I can watch America slowly fade from green to brown and back to green again as we futily chase the slowly sinking sun.

So, the Universe, and the Big Bounce, and Theists. I have just plowed through a great read ... The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, By Paul Collins. I say plowed through ... should that be ploughed? ... because I hardly stopped for a breath. It is the sort of book that needs a glossary of characters because I kept getting lost. I especially enjoyed the reformed southern racist turned enlightened liberal rational Moncure Conway. Collins' great gift is to use his plot ... the search for Tom Paine's bones ... to allow his reader to wander almost convivially through the great budding of intellectual currents of the 19th century. We are their product, even if the vast majority of the ideas they produced are long-since garbage-heaped ... Darwin excepted, of course. That said, there is a confluence in ideation from the 19th century which is having a latter-day and unfortunate revival ... to whit a kind of half-baked theism in the sense of those who proclaim that there is no necessary contradiction between religious belief and science. Sorry, I beg to differ. It had a certain rationality in the 19th century given the dominance of religious thought over every aspect of life, but its revival now only proclaims that all that we know, all that we have discovered, every unearthing that we have done has yet to convince vastly too wide a swath of the species that religion is bunk. Depressing. Maddening.

That is what I mean by Palinization ... the revanche of the religious into your living room. Weak theism is no answer, but perhaps it is all we can get. See Obama as weak theism.

I saw another aspect of the 19th century in Ottawa when the whole lot of us ... aged p's, sis and bro-in-law, and myself ... tottled off to the spectacular Canadian War Museum. Notwithstanding the 18th century and the 20th century, Canada's self-invention is potted in the soil of the 19th-century. I saw the uniform of Sir Isaac Brock and the clean hole just under the broad lapel where the bullet that killed him entered at the battle of Queenston Heights in 1813 ... years ago we all climbed the obelisk at the site when we were a young family of six. A fine speaker of a docent, a 60s-something man with the classic jacket and medals of a Canadian legionnaire, spoke up on the point to us. He long wondered, he stated, why there was no blood until he ran into a group of Canadian Armed Forces surgeons who explained that the precise location of that hole predicted an almost instantaneous death in which all the bleeding would be internal. Fascinating. Father took it in silently.

Earlier the same docent-legionnaire had marveled in front of a large photograph of soldiers on their way back from the battle of Passchendaele at how fat and powerful their fingers and hands were. "These are farm boys," he said, and he was right of course. Passchendaele is likely the best place to say that Canada became Canada there. Our troops there proved themselves to be elite forces ... and as they participated in the great bloodletting that brought the long 19th century to a close, they defined Canada as a nation. Blood and nation. Life is like that.

On Saturday, there was an article in the usually quite underwhelming Ottawa Citizen about the role of Lester Pearson in the United Nations response to the Suez Crisis of 1956. A rather nuanced article that seemed simultaneously to support and undermine the thesis, broadly accepted, that the 40s and 50s were a high-water mark for Canadian diplomacy, and one from which we have shrunk ever since. Again, not precisely certain where the writer stands on the question, but he seemed to suggest that the undermining of that argument provided ground for those who do not lament the current Canadian irrelevance in international affairs. If we weren't so great then, so he suggests, then who cares if we are a bunch of duffers now.

I was raised on the notion of Canada's unique and liberal contribution to world affairs ... that our contribution of troops to solve the Suez Crisis in 56 was the road to a future without war in which rationality and sense prevailed over the bloody nationalisms born of that 19th century and which would not die. My family is NDPers ... the Canadian labor party ... but we admired Pearson even then. Pearson, of course, found his nemesis in the maniacal and eccentric Conservative, John Diefenbaker, who managed to take just enough of a bite out of Pearson's time on the stage to prevent him form being the greatest Prime Minister of our long century on the stage. Can't say I agree or not, but Pearson changed from being a liberal hero to a bit of a sad sack over time, and we remember him as a man just shy of greatness.

Life's like that.

Canada, too, just shy of greatness. I feel that all the time when I am there. Canadians do not know how good they have it ... no one does ... and they are just parochial enough not to be able to use their unique position to bless the world with the fruits of theirs insights. That's how I feel about it. That's how I feel about the election concluded during my stay in which the tiny minds of the Canadian Conservatives managed to deny themselves the majority which they do not deserve based on about 38% of the vote nationally.

Still, I love the country, and it is always bittersweet returning to my home for more than half my life. I want to be in my world, and I leave behind that fantasy land, Canada.

One more note as the ladies with the gin and tonic draw near. There was a piece on the National News on CBC about how Canadian banks are doing much better in the great financial crisis by reason of two factors ... they are more cautious and they are more regulated. Harrumph. Whoddathunkit. Caution and regulation, the cure for the American disease.

Or would you rather have Palinization?

Life's like that.

More photos from the Canadian War Museum here. I'll try to add some photos to illustrate this rant later.

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