Thoughts in the Wake of a Total Solar Eclipse

Eclipse shadow through tree leaves, over half occluded. Downtown Kansas City, August 21, 2017

Eclipse shadow through tree leaves, over half occluded. Downtown Kansas City, August 21, 2017.
Image property of John Keogh

In the early afternoon on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse traversed the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. In Kansas City, morning storms cleared and blue sky opened just in time to view the event, from the first sliver of moon shadow through totality. It’s the only total solar eclipse I’ve witnessed. I’m struggling to put the experience into words.

I started studying astronomy in 2nd and 3rd grade. In 3rd grade, we had to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up and the title of mine was “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” Space was my first fascination and my first love.

I’ve seen partial solar eclipses in person. I’ve seen images of total eclipses and they’re beautiful. Astronomically speaking, eclipses aren’t that rare or complex. They happen pretty often, simple mass body physics.

So I expected the total eclipse to be spectacular, gorgeous. I expected it to be cool and interesting. I expected to be fascinated by it and by the effect it had on insects and animals. I expected to completely geek out over it.

I never expected it to be so powerful.

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A Personal Perspective on the Struggle for Civil Rights

Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.

He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.

This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.

Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.

While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.

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Searching for the Other

Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)

We weren’t always monotypic. We shared Ice Age Europe with Homo neanderthalensis for tens of thousands of years. We shared parts of the planet with H. erectus for much of our early existence. It’s possible we even overlapped somewhat with H. heidelbergensis (I don’t know what the scholarly consensus is on this—recent discoveries have complicated the origins of H. sapiens. There were also many more coexistent relatives during our early evolution.)

For well over half of our existence on this planet as H. sapiens, there were other people out there who were within our taxonomic genus but who weren’t our species.

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Unreliable Narrators

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn & The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Crown, 2012

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, 2015

In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.

Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.

Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.

Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.

For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.

I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.

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Practicing Empathy

I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.

What a bastard.

It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.

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Another Perspective on Poverty

This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.

And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.

I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.

Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.

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Perspectives on Poverty

[I posted a truncated version of what follows as a Tweet-thread.]

Poverty is something I think about frequently. Working in an urban public library system, many of our patrons are poor. The community we serve has significant neighborhoods of poverty. It’s our responsibility to understand what our patrons need, what life is really like for them.

This is an issue that’s always on my mind but it seems particularly important to speak out about it now.

There’s a group of kids—teens and tweens—who hang out at a local library. Sometimes they hang out at the McDonald’s down the street. These kids clearly live in poverty.

All of them have smartphones.

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