Vision Aerie

Room without a roof.
Room without a roof.

Last night I watched the first episode of the revived “Cosmos,” the legendary television science series created by charismatic astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sagan was less known for his scientific achievements than for his amazing ability to make science comprehensible, and even entertaining, to audiences not normally interested in hard-to-grasp facts and theories.

In 1980 when the series first aired on PBS, computers were only beginning to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Geeks and nerds hadn’t yet ascended on the social/cultural evolutionary scale. “Cosmos” helped to glamorize the pursuit of knowledge at a time when stunning photographs of the vastness of outer space were first being sent back by the Voyager satellites. Such images let us see with our own eyes how very small our little planet is in the Big Picture.

The world has changed a bit since those starry-eyed times. Some things have improved. Others seem to be regressing.

In our current era of “reality” television, widespread conspiracy theories and muddy thinking, irrationality appears to be gaining ground. It’s a bit disheartening.

But at least now we have astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, who hosts the new series, to rev the engines of hope and wonder and science. He’s the right man, on the right planet, at a critical time.

I’ll admit, I never watched much of the original “Cosmos” series in 1980. I had just given birth to my first child and was expecting a second. My world was very tightly focused. But I had a cursory grasp of the basics of “Cosmos.”  An infinite universe? Check. Evolution? Check. Room for improvement in the human interface with our beautiful planet Earth? Of course!

In the years since then I’ve had to cash in a few reality checks. Apparently not everyone fully accepts the fact-based discoveries learned through centuries of science. Though brave thinkers died for this knowledge, and the discoveries they made have improved life, at least for humans, immeasurably, this reality seems not to count for much with the crazy crowd.

I understand crazy. Been there, done that.

I prefer science. It’s more exciting, more fascinating, and far, far more hopeful.

Last week on a trip to the west coast of Florida I visited a nature preserve on Honeymoon Island State Park. The park aims to encourage native wildlife, as opposed to the sort of human wild life that thrives across the causeway, where bars and restaurants and gift shops cater to tourists and kids on spring break.

Honeymoon Island caters to ospreys. Eagles too, and also rattlesnakes, in addition to some snuffling armadillos and camera-shy turtles.

It’s quiet in the park. The high-pitched shrieks of nesting ospreys carry on the wind. The nests are easy to see, a hundred feet or more above the ground. You can see why the birds thrive there. The surrounding waters provide a steady supply of fish, and there aren’t any predators. A perfect place to raise offspring.

If you look at Earth objectively, from a scientific point of view, our little planet has all the fixin’s for the human species to raise its offspring. Yet we continue to be our own worst enemies, with whole generations killing each other off, century after century, as if there were no tomorrow.

If we keep it up, perhaps there won’t be. For us.

That’s why shows like “Cosmos” are so important. News broadcasts may keep us aware of some of the dangers we face, and other forms of entertainment may divert us from facing those problems, but “Cosmos” urges us to open our eyes and our minds and reflect upon how magnificent and breathtaking is the universe in which we live.

The show, which is airing on Fox (!) on Sundays for the next 12 weeks, will be repeated Mondays (tonight at 10 p.m.) on the National Geographic Channel. Catch it if you can.

Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad's out catching dinner.
Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad’s out catching dinner.


In A World Distracted

I was told there would be snacks.
I was told there would be snacks.

Yes, I watched the Super Bowl. No, I don’t care about football.

But I am continually amazed by the peculiarities of my species, and those are on display with extra sprinkles during our nation’s annual rite of roughhousing. Love it or hate it, football is entrenched in our culture, almost as deeply as the beer and cars and snack food whose ads support the whole ritual.

And, I admit, I enjoy critiquing the Super Bowl ads at least as much as I enjoy watching the game. I mean, breathes there a soul so dead that never involuntarily said “aww!” at the first sight of those Budweiser ads with the puppy and the Clydesdale? Come on! Puppies! Clydesdales! United in their appreciation for American beer, even if that company is now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian corporation. It’s still our beer, right?

Well, beer aside, the Super Bowl is over, and now we have to face the rest of February with only Mardi Gras, Valentines day, and the Olympics to distract us from the tiresome work of reality. In Washington, D.C., people pay a lot of attention to the news. And a lot of people in this city are actively involved in trying to change and/or improve the way things work in this country and the rest of the world. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s never as simple as one might hope, it’s rarely easy, and often slow to manifest.

That slowness represents a challenge for us humans. We all want instant results. Lose weight fast. Get rich quick. Dominate the market today.

Yet there’s an upside to a slower process that allows for adjustments, refinements, and perhaps a closer brush with perfection. It’s hard to stay focused on one goal persistently, day after day, week after week. Everyone needs a break from time to time. Thus, some watch football. Others prefer the Kitten Bowl, or the Puppy Bowl.

In a world where the problems sometimes seem too large to manage and the people in charge appear unequal to the task, it’s important not to lose hope. When my spirit sags I turn to movies. This past weekend I watched “In A World,” Lake Bell’s brilliant and funny film about the curious business of voice-overs. The film has a lot to say about ambition, gender issues and perception, but most of all it challenges the notion that we are all stuck “in a world” where things can’t be changed. Bell makes it clear that even when the game is rigged and the odds are stacked against you, you can change the game.

As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said in his interview after the Super Bowl, his father always encouraged him to follow his dreams even though they seemed out of reach, saying, “You have the ability…so why not you?”

In a world where the Seattle Seahawks can defeat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it feels like anything can happen.

Armed With Truth and Beauty

The goddess Saraswati encourages all to grow wise in harmony.

For those of us unable to feel the electric buzz of religious faith that motivates some people to acts of kindness or terror, there are nonetheless times when we wish we could find something above and beyond the mundane demands of daily life to inspire us to be the best we can be without having to join a cult, or a militia, or a book club.

Recently the spiritual signature of the Dupont Circle neighborhood went up a notch thanks to a new artwork erected by the Indonesian Embassy. The stunning pure-white statue depicts Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and art.

I had never heard of her before I happened on the statue gleaming above Massachusetts Avenue. I was fascinated by the exotic image, so markedly in contrast to the usual statues of men in suits that dominate the public venues in downtown D.C.

Because of this city’s history and the tendency to honor military and political leaders in general, there aren’t as many public statues celebrating the kinder, gentler side of humanity. True, there’s an eye-catching statue of Gandhi just a few blocks away from this new work. But Gandhi was a political figure too, worldly and powerful in spite of his humble aura.

The goddess Saraswati, by contrast, has the fantastic appearance of a creature of the imagination, far too radiant to be one of us. This probably has something to do with her appeal as a goddess. According to the explanatory plaque beside the statue, the objects which Saraswati carries in her four arms symbolize her areas of concern. There’s a book symbolizing knowledge, a mandolin representing art and culture, and a string of rosary-like beads for “unlimited knowledge.” In addition she rises above a lotus flower, symbol of holiness, and she is accompanied by a swan, another symbol of wisdom, according to the plaque.

Style and substance unite in a hopeful image.

That’s a heap of symbols to carry around, if you ask me. Yet Saraswati appears radiantly serene, as if, even though she knows the job of lifting up folks’ spirits and instilling them with knowledge and wisdom may be a bit of a challenge, she’s undaunted.

I like that in a goddess.

I imagine having four arms helps. I’ve often thought that if there were a goddess of housework a few extra sets of arms would come in handy. I can’t see anyone worshiping a goddess of cleanliness though.

Wisdom, on the other hand, has lofty appeal. So many of the world’s problems seem to stem from a woeful lack of wisdom. The seemingly endless conflicts between various religions hardly appear wise to me. But then, maybe I’m just not wise enough to see the Big Picture.

At any rate, I welcome the fresh new face near Dupont Circle, a neighborhood with a rich past of colorful characters and spirited protests.

Will She be able to lift the tenor of public discourse in this city of rumors and partisan feuding?

Goddess only knows.

Wanna Bet?

The calm before the protest.

It’s hard to sell the concept of global warming to folks digging out from a couple feet of snow.

However, the winter storm which silenced much of the Northeast barely frosted the windows here in D.C., where we’ve been enjoying a snow-globe kind of winter. Every couple of days a few flakes shake down from the clouds, but it never amounts to much. Kind of like our national approach to dealing with global warming.

This coming Sunday, February 17th, thousands of people concerned about global warming are expected to mass on the National Mall to bring attention to the rapidly changing weather patterns on planet Earth.

Naturally, in a country such as ours, where dissent is considered a birthright, there will likely be a contingent of outspoken global warming deniers, who insist that a couple of degrees here or there aren’t worth getting all worked up about, and certainly not reason to trade in our SUV’s for more modest vehicles.

Not being an expert myself, I can’t claim to understand the Big Picture. But I do think the key word here is “global.”

While it’s easy enough to read the mercury rising in a thermometer in your own backyard, it’s far more difficult to appreciate how the rise of one degree at the North Pole can lead to oceans swallowing coastal towns and island nations.

Yet this is what the data tells us. This is what all the computer simulations predict. This isn’t just one or two crackpot doom scenarios, or some completely random Mayan prediction of world-ending chaos. This is quiet, steady science—the same kind that brought you laser surgery, high definition television and the Internet. You believe in those, right? At least the first two anyway.

The problem is that for most humans that global perspective is tough to maintain. One minute you can see it—how we are all just tiny specks in a vast soup of cosmic possibilities; the next minute you’re hungry and the only bowl of soup you’re interested in is minestrone.

So, much as I’d like to think that Sunday’s demonstration will have lasting impact on policy makers, I’m doubtful of our nation’s ability to make the hard big decisions, and less than optimistic about the will of people like me when it comes to making those hundreds of small decisions every day that add up to climate change: whether to drive or walk, to recycle or throw in the garbage, to turn up the heat or put on another sweater, etc.

In the long run it may already be too late for us to reverse the course of the planet’s mood swing. The fact that most of us won’t live to see the way this all turns out makes it all too easy to ignore.

This past Sunday I went down to the National Mall, where the mild weather had brought out the kickball teams, the Frisbee tossers, and a smattering of happy tourists enjoying the sunshine and the wide open spaces. On such a day it’s easy to forget about polar bears running out of ice, and the tiny atolls in the Pacific which will completely disappear in a matter of decades at the rate things are going.

Maybe the complacent deniers will win out, and we’ll continue to burn through this planet’s resources as if there were no tomorrow. But even if we won’t take responsibility for the planet for ourselves, shouldn’t we at least do it for our children?

It’s their world we’re gambling with.

“One Sky”

The Inaugural dawn evoked poet Richard Blanco's line about "Hope, a new constellation, waiting for us to map it."

So I wimped out on going down to the National Mall to watch the inaugural hoopla. But I watched it on TV. That counts, right?

At least I was able to hear all the speeches, which is more than some of the unlucky visitors who happened to be corralled in the farthest areas open to the non-ticketed public, where the Jumbo-tron screens flaked out during Obama’s speech.

I can only hope the excitement of Being There made up for the technical failure.

For me, it was an inspiring hour of speechifyin’, superb music and some thoughtful poetry thrown in to satisfy the high-brows in the audience.

Yet after Beyoncé had dazzled us with her unfailing grace, and the crowds began to head for the exits, I checked out the instant analysis online and was saddened, though not surprised, to learn that not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the proceedings.

The percentage of venomous ranters to giddy believers was at least small enough to sustain my habitual pie-eyed optimism that somehow, after the bands have packed up and gone home, after the balls gowns have been sent to the cleaners and the champagne corks swept up, there may be some period of detente between the various feuding factions, not only in the government, but in the public discourse.

Of course, I’ve been a gullible sap most of my life. Eager to believe the unbelievable, dream the impossible dream, etc., I’ve never taken to the general cut and thrust roughhousing of politics. I keep thinking grown-ups should be able to cooperate and work toward the common good more effectively. I forget that not everyone cares about the common good.

Earlier this past weekend I happened to see a license plate in McLean, Virginia, that hit me like a slap. It read: MEFIRST.

My husband suggested that perhaps it was intended ironically. But gullible as I am, even I don’t buy that theory. It kind of depresses me to think that there are people who would even think such a sentiment was funny.

But you know what? After this morning’s stirring celebration of all that is right and good about our one-of-a-kind nation, I’m not going to let a few sour apples spoil my pie in the sky.

My president is a rock star. And I do believe in “We the People.”

Make My Millennium

Sock It To Me

Okay, so here’s my guilty secret. I like movies where things explode.

Not all movies where things explode. But when Bruce Willis, or someone of his stripe, sets off to save the planet with a quip and a smirk, I enjoy the payoff as much as any backyard commando. Maybe more, since I have no personal illusions about being able to pull off anything remotely qualified to feature in an action flick. When I take action these days it’s usually in the kitchen, or, if I’m lucky, in the garden.

Yet much as I like action movies where things explode and steely-eyed heroes step in and light the match, I recognize these stories as fiction.

Fiction is something I understand. Reality, not so much. Perhaps that’s why it simply blows my mind that there are actually people in the “real” world who think it’s a swell idea for the United States at this point in the progress of the civilized world to build a so-called “Death Star” to protect us from anticipated alien attacks.

And here I thought I was delusional.

Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the paranoid  legions will have the last laugh when the aliens start bombing and scorching us with their death rays, but I feel fairly confident that at the rate we’re killing each other off down here on Earth there won’t be much for aliens to conquer, when and if they ever arrive.

I was comforted to read in The Washington Post today that the Obama administration “does not support blowing up planets.” Good to know.

In the meantime, that estimated $850 quadrillion which the proposed “Death Star” would cost (and you know how it is with estimates – nothing comes in under the estimate) could come in handy as we try to pay down the national debt, solve the problems in our education, health care and aging infrastructure.

And after we end hunger, poverty and injustice, then we can get that Death Star project up and running. Sure we can.

Coming soon to a theatre near you.

Suit Up

Here Come Santa Clauses

Washington, D.C., is known around the world as a center of power. Traditionally, men in suits are the ones wielding that power.

Suits change, but do they change the men inside?

I wonder.

If, as they say, clothes make the man, shouldn’t it follow that if all men wore Santa suits they would find themselves becoming kinder, jollier, more generous old souls?

Perhaps, given the intractable nature of politics as usual in our fair city, it might be worth giving it a shot. We could start by insisting that all our elected representatives don red fuzzy suits for the month of December (white whiskers optional) and see where it takes us.

Would the curmudgeonly types suddenly feel the force of compassion for those less fortunate? Would the bickering and back-biting give way to cheery goodwill?

Yeah, I know. Not in this lifetime.

But maybe someday there will come a time when men in red outnumber the Scrooges and Grinches.

And that would suit me just fine.

Looking Up

Where there's light, there's hope.

Ahhh. Savor the pause button.

Now that the election season with its attendant antagonism and anxiety has finally blown past, maybe we can get back to work on the real problems in an atmosphere of quiet cooperation.

In a way, this started almost before the marathon voting began, when super storm Sandy delivered its walloping reality check. Natural disasters, and unnatural ones as well, shake us out of our complacency and remind us of our common vulnerability. We are none of us immune to disasters. And in the face of calamity we turn to those with cool heads and warm hearts for help.

In the summer of 2011, when the talking heads in Washington, D.C., were absorbed in business and bickering as usual, an unusually strong and widespread earthquake measuring 5.8 shook the suits out of their insular hive and into the open air of the common people. No one was seriously injured, but the event cast a long shadow in the city due to its lingering effect on landmarks such as the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

The Washington Monument remains closed indefinitely, awaiting repairs. The National Cathedral has remained open, even as repairs are ongoing.

At our best, that’s the way we roll in this country. We get knocked down, but we get up and keep going, looking for that higher ground.

High above the pews in the Cathedral a veil of black netting now shields visitors from any bits of debris which may yet fall. The netting could be seen as a barrier, diminishing the impact of the building’s magnificent windows. But when the light shines through those windows now, at certain times of day it gets caught in the netting, producing a magical transitory illusion, something like the magic of faith itself.

It will take time to heal the discord in our mighty nation. There’s no magic wand or super pac power that can unite our divisive reds and blues and make them like it. But maybe it’s worth a try. Sometimes we just forget to look up.

Paint By Number

Just Another Brick in the Wall

The first time I participated in a national election I cast my vote for George McGovern.

I believed in him and his entire platform. Some people may remember him only as the man who suffered a crushing defeat against Richard Nixon in 1972, but McGovern was so much more than that. A lifelong advocate for peace and justice, he was also a former war hero who flew 35 missions in Europe in World War II, including several during which his plane was so shot up he barely managed to fly it to a safe place to land, feats which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yet his remarkable resume wasn’t enough to overcome the slander and innuendo heaped upon him during the 1972 campaign in which he ran as the anti-war candidate, determined to end the bloodshed in Vietnam. Nixon’s team branded McGovern as a pacifist sissy.

A proud liberal, McGovern spent his long life working to promote peace, to end hunger around the world, and to implement tax reform and better health care. He didn’t get a lot of respect for his efforts until late in his life, long after the corruption of Nixon’s campaign and the machinations of the Republican Party  had been exposed.

I was sorry he lost in 1972. It was the start of trend, for me. The candidates for whom I voted rarely won, and if they did, they usually didn’t last long. Jimmy Carter was in and out of the White House so fast it barely registered. Then came the Clinton triumph, and I thought for a while the jinx was over, until he revealed that he was only a man, even in the Oval office.

When Obama won I was far away, on the west coast, in the other Washington, where the constant clanging of partisan swords and sound bites that provides the ambient soundtrack inside the Beltway seems pleasantly remote. But as I watched the gathering on the National Mall during Obama’s inauguration, I felt a wistful pang of homesickness. At last, I thought, the tide was turning, and I wasn’t there to enjoy it.

Now, the stage is set for another showdown. I’m not confident. I’ve seen enough of these things to know that money matters far more than it should in our political system. And the poorest among us, the ones who can least afford to lose more, are the ones who stand to lose the most.

Still. There’s hope.

On a wall near Calvert Street in Washington, D.C., a striking mural covers the side of Mama Ayesha’s restaurant. Completed in 2009, the painting by artist Karla “Karlisima” Rodas depicts the last nine presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. In the center is Mama Ayesha herself, a petite yet powerful woman whose Middle Eastern restaurant began serving to Washington notables in 1960, as the Calvert Cafe. After Mama Ayesha’s death in 1993, the name of the restaurant was changed to honor her. Born in Jerusalem, Mama Ayesha came to this country in 1940 and began her career as a cook for the Syrian Embassy. Her enduring success (the restaurant continues as a family business) is a tribute to all that America stands for – opportunity, freedom, social justice and the dignity of the individual. It is fitting that her portrait is included among all those powerful presidents.

But the question remains: Will there be a new face in the mural line-up after November 6th? Maybe the artist has no plans to update, no matter what happens. There’s no telling, after all. Polls and maps and surveys toss numbers around like confetti, but in the end it will come down to hard numbers.

How much is your country worth to you? There’s a number out there.

Burning Blight

So I see that Ang Lee has made a movie out of Yann Martell’s brilliant fantasy The Life of Pi.

This seems a bit ambitious to me, but then, Ang Lee is a genius, so perhaps he can handle it. Yet when I read the book about a boy who survives 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, I heard much discussion about what, if anything, the tiger symbolized. Was it a metaphor for death? A figment of the boy’s fevered imagination? Or some divine manifestation of the power and majesty of God?

I wanted to believe the tiger was real. You know, like Calvin’s Hobbes but with claws and teeth.

Friends told me I was hopelessly naive. No doubt they were right. Yet now I’m curious to see how my reading of the novel compares with Lee’s visualization.

In fiction, as in life, point of view can clarify or obscure. When you’re high up, looking down, the patterns of human behavior are easier to observe, but only when you’re down on the ground, in the boat with the tiger, can you get a feel for the hunger, the anger, the despair in people’s eyes.

For most of us, our point of view limits our ability to understand one another, and, as history and the daily news remind us, the inability to empathize can be fatal. When point of view provokes point of gun, everyone loses.

This is what the tiger means to me.

The tiger is the cornered beast, the itchy trigger finger that lurks deep in the psyche of every soul. And we are all in this boat together.

Unless we tame our tigers, the outlook is bleak. As the fires of bigotry and religious fervor rage hotter across the world, we would do well to remember that absolutes rarely are. Everything depends on perspective. Now more than ever, as the world tilts toward chaos, it’s imperative that cooler heads prevail.

It’s harder to make peace than to provoke war. But to stir up hatred for political gain is the lowest form of evil – the methodology of fascists.

So let’s all take a deep breath and look this tiger in the eyes and try not to make any sudden moves. We could still make it to the shore if we don’t panic.

But never forget, tigers can swim.