Never Say Die

Buffy and Spike. Fangs for the memories.
Buffy and Spike. Fangs for the memories.

In these fractious times it’s tempting to climb back into the cave, turn on the device of your choice, and let the Great Spin roll for a few turns. I need to sit this dance out.

I could say I’m just getting too old for this, the clash of ideas and the roar of emotions. But I don’t think it’s that. It’s the grim clang of broadswords ringing in the cold November air while the blood of the fallen is still flowing. Kind of takes the stuffing out of me.

When I was young and I first realized that very, very few humans are granted that happily ever after lifestyle that seems like a promise in all too many books written for young impressionable minds, I felt betrayed. Really. Everywhere I looked in the world I saw terrible things happening and nobody rushing in to save the day, unless you count John Wayne in all those movies. But even as a child I figured out that real life and movies were two different things.

These days the line between reality and fiction seems paper-thin. However, I do not despair. If we are indeed approaching some sort of end-game scenario, it’s not the first time. Apocalypses recur.

I learned this from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Go ahead, sneer if you must. But trust me, I didn’t jump on the vampire bandwagon for the fangs and the gore. I didn’t even start watching the show until it went into reruns. At that point in my life my mother had just died and my children had all left home. I was alone with my thoughts a lot. I happened on the show one afternoon, and suddenly I saw it as a metaphor for the human struggle to grow up and survive in a world where monsters come in all flavors and the end of the world is always just around the corner.

What made the show great was its irrepressible tone of optimism and the undercurrent of compassion for humanity’s many weaknesses. The original premise upended the usual horror trope of the beautiful helpless female victim. Buffy Summers kicked ass. As a heroine, Buffy was not infallible, but she always bounced back, and often with a quip. The humor was what really sold me on the show. Yeah, there was romance, and sweetness, and lighter episodes to leaven the darker themes, but as the seasons went on, the show began to deal with real-life issues that resonated with me, in particular, (spoiler alert) in the season when Buffy’s mother dies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old when it happens. When your mother dies, your world breaks apart for a while.

I credit Joss Whedon, the creator and driving force behind the show, with producing a story that not only entertains, but illustrates the way humans can work together to overcome their fears and learn to help one another to get through tough times.

I love this world. I don’t know if humanity has the sense and sensibility to keep it together for another millennium. But I’m rooting for the righteous babes to prevail and save us all.

Debugging Retirement

In retirement there's time for whatever floats your boat.
In retirement there’s time for whatever floats your boat.

Some years ago Robert Atchley, a gerontologist, published a paper about the seven stages of retirement. He described the honeymoon phase, the disenchantment that follows it, and the reorientation that gradually evolves. The paper was widely quoted, and boomers who expected to live forever blithely ignored it.

We’re not so blithe anymore.

Yet we of the grey ponytail set still rebel against the notion that we must follow the path our elders took. We prefer to follow our hearts, even when they lead us into shark-infested waters.

However, as we find ourselves slipping, kicking and screaming in some cases, into geezerhood, I can’t help noticing that Atchley wasn’t far wrong in his assessment of the process. But I have my own take on the stage settings.

The way I see it, stage one is Relief. Free at last! This is celebrated with lots of sleeping in and various libations according to taste, until the balloons wilt and the gang leaves.

This leads to stage two, Wild Speculation. You can do anything now! Take that trip to Easter Island, remodel the kitchen, climb Kilimanjaro, or at least take a picture of yourself beside it, which is just as good and earns you points on the been-there-done-that scale.

Unfortunately, all that activity eventually leads to stage three, Exhaustion. Also, unless you were very thrifty before this whole retirement notion sank in, you’re beginning to realize there are limits, monetary and stamina-wise, to what you can do.

But you aren’t about to let that cramp your style. Thus you charge ahead into stage four, Planning Your Strategy, with a determination to enjoy life to the fullest and make the world a better place at the same time. Nothing will stop you.

However, as you wade deeper into the logistics and hard realities of planning a better life, etc., you begin to feel that this is a lot like work. Welcome to stage five.

Gradually, as you continue to gather facts and figures, the complexity of it all begins to weigh you down and a numbing lassitude sets in, signaling that you have reached the Why Bother stage. It has a number, but who cares?

Some people never make it out of this stage. I feel for them.

But you know, we few, we lucky few, we who band with our brothers and say to hell with stages, we’ll play for our friends and make the world a brighter place if only for a few hours, we place our faith in the Bank of Denial. That’s right. Good old fashioned what-me-worry? denial has stood the test of time and, by golly, it can work for you if you give it a chance.

The important thing, the vital prime directive of this mission into senior air-space, is: Don’t Sit In the Chair. Yes, I know. The chair beckons. It’s so comfy. It welcomes your tired aching body like the warm hug of a sweet lover. But you must resist. Once you give in to the chair, there’s no getting back up.

The whole key to survival, really, is to keep going. Where almost doesn’t matter.

I’ve recently become addicted to the stylish, loosely-based-on-reality series “Halt and Catch Fire.” The title refers to an old computer coding mnemonic that causes a program to cease meaningful operation, often requiring a restart of the computer. Set in the 1980s, when computers were just beginning to take over the world, the show manages to take a quiet, nerdy business and make it sexy and exciting.

Computer technology has always been a game of speed and wits. The fast succeed. Those who stop to rest never catch up. They get left in the dust.

The real secret to retiring is: don’t. Find something you love to do and do it as long as you can. The final frontier is, after all, another frontier. Further!

Mad Men, Madder Women

Buy things. Drive everywhere. It's the American Way.
Buy things. Drive everywhere. It’s the American Way.

I’m not good at goodbyes. But I was ready for the departure of Don Draper and his conniving crew long before Matthew Weiner wrapped up the much-lauded television series.

True confession: I am a TV junkie. Not that I have to have it every day, but everyone has a weakness. I’m a sucker for stylish characters delivering neat lines in dramatic scenes. I don’t require violence or tension necessarily. Humor is a must. And a touch of romance, in my view, makes everything better.

Mad Men, which ended its seven season run on AMC last Sunday, had everything going for it. Style, strong acting, and a dramatic arc that took viewers from the end of the Korean War to the quagmire of the Vietnam era. As history would have it, this allowed the writers to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of cultural phenomena, all of which added to the show’s curiously addictive appeal.

While I was initially hooked by the elegant opening sequence, which remained just as seductive in the final episode as it was in the first, the show’s use of music to underscore plot developments and character studies was unmatched. From the moment Amy Winehouse crooned “You Know I’m No Good” at the conclusion of the first episode, the template was set. I could have listened to her for the entire series. Somehow, her tragic death seemed to foreshadow the dark parabola of the show’s narrative direction.

Yet, week after week, year after year, I found it impossible to join the rabid fans who gushed about Don Draper’s irresistible charms. I can only assume that the character of the alpha male who bluffs his way to the top of a corporate hierarchy while women continually throw themselves at him must resonate with a lot of people.

He irked the hell out of me. But then, so did most of the male characters in the show. The carefree air of self-satisfied entitlement and male-chauvinist patronizing was all too familiar for any woman who experienced the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the United States. Maybe it was different in other countries.

But, that said, my hat’s off to Weiner for the female characters who battled their way through Mad Men. Each of them represented some aspect of the challenges women faced during those decades when women’s rights were still viewed as a kind of novelty by the majority of men in power.

True, Betty seemed a little psychotic at times. But after all, she smoked her way through seven seasons, and that stuff will kill you. Joan and Peggy fared a bit better, in spite of the shabby treatment they endured from most of the men they encountered along the way. But at least they fought the good fight and both of them emerged stronger at the end.

For a time part of my huffy attitude toward the show was lodged in the concept of advertising itself. Was I supposed to care about people who spent their lives writing advertising? I have a mute button and I know how to use it.

But my resistance eventually collapsed after a certain episode, one of many in which one of the writers pitches a campaign to a group of executives. Peggy stands in front of a group of skeptical men and tells them a story about a working mother trying to feed her family. And so compelling is her story that she draws them all into it, until they get it. For a moment they feel that transcendent lift that a good story delivers, when it allows the reader, or viewer, to see things from a different perspective.

In the end, that’s what the best stories and television shows do. We may not buy into the dubious premise that “Coke is it.” But when we see hundreds of fresh-faced people standing in the sunshine with bottles of sugar-saturated soft drink, we don’t care if it’s good or bad, because for one brief shining moment, perfect harmony seems only a sip away.

The Mage of Reason

Spock's mind was his super power.
Spock’s mind was his super power.

Logic never made much sense to me.

When I took it in college I was confounded by its rules and axioms. The so-called self-evident principals never resonated with me in the way that poetic flights of sheer fantasy always have.

In general, I’m a pretty gullible person. Just ask my brothers, or the guy who scammed $12 off me back in 1978 to pay for his bus fare to see his dying grandmother. Yeah right.

But arguments based on pure logic always woke the mule in me. Until a certain Starfleet Science Officer known as much for his pointy ears and greenish skin as for his brilliant analytical mind came into my life.

I never saw the original Star Trek during its three season journey through the wasteland of prime time television from 1966 to 1969. I was exploring other worlds myself back then. But in the summer of 1971 my brother Billy introduced me to the series, which was in heavy reruns and already gaining altitude in the pantheon of science fiction legends.

The great thing about reruns is that they allow a newbie to catch up fast. With Billy’s coaching I was soon fully engaged, a shy but enthusiastic Trekkie. I never went to a convention. Although I did stand in line to sit in the original Captain’s chair when the 20th anniversary Star Trek exhibition opened at the Smithsonian.

So, is Spock really dead? I mean, I know Leonard Nimoy died yesterday, and I’m saddened by this, although grateful that he had such an amazing life and eventually came to terms with his Spock legacy.

For me, Spock was always the one. I loved all the originals: Kirk with his over-the-top thespian shtick, McCoy with his irritable grit, Scottie with his mechanical wizardry and never-say-die pluck, Uhura with her poise and courage, and the playful Sulu and Chekhov.

But it was Spock whose gravity, credibility, and wry humor made me believe that sometimes a little logic can be magical.

Leonard Nimoy himself, according to reports and things he wrote in his 1975 memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” and later in the 1995 memoir, “I Am Spock,” came to realize that, illogical as it may be, the character of Leonard Nimoy had so much to do with the character of Spock, that the two “melded” in the minds of adoring fans.

As a lifelong romantic fool myself, I found the character of Spock the most compelling precisely because he always tried to resist irrational behavior, yet, because he was half-human, he was vulnerable like all the rest of us.

The truth is, humans aren’t rational. Yet we continue, some of us anyway, trying to make sense of this life, trying to assign reasons for the infinite mysteries that surround us. It’s kind of sweet. And that’s why, if I had to choose one Star Trek character to be my desert island companion, it would be Spock, the tall cool one. I’d mind-meld with him any day.

Go in peace Leonard Nimoy Spock. And thanks for all the fascinating years.

Et Tu, Anthony?

"The Big Train,"pitcher Walter Johnson led the Washington baseball team to the championship in 1924.
Baseball has its own history. Walter Johnson led Washington baseball to the world championship in 1924.

There is history, and there’s History.

Lower case history tends to be personal. It happens to all of us as we go through our little lives. Upper case History more often involves the rise and fall of nations, civilizations, great leaders and vile despots. Such history generally relies on a  fair amount of hard facts and reliably recorded data.

Hard facts have always been a stumbling block for me. I’m inclined to step around the side of any fact and imagine how it would look without its makeup. It’s my firmly held belief that perception influences data. At least that’s how it seems from my angle.

This aspect of history baffled me throughout my academic years. I struggled to get through every history class. The sheer volume of history was just too discouraging.

However, as we learn if we give History a chance, Time changes everything. Including history.

Television has dramatically enhanced the way history is shared. Ever since Ken Burns began making his engaging documentaries about defining events such as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, and World War II, as well as his inspiring films dealing with social and cultural topics such as Prohibition, Jazz, and The Brooklyn Bridge, history has escaped from the quiet pages of books. In Burns’s films the soul and passion of history are revealed.

As may be apparent from the gushing, lately I’ve come around on History. While reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thrilling Team of Rivals I was enthralled by the wisdom, the patience, and the sheer goodness of Lincoln. Now I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating The Great Bridge and learning  things about Brooklyn I’d never known, in spite of the fact that my Dad was born and raised there.

Admittedly, history may never grip the general population the way reality TV apparently does. But I’ve been delighted to learn that history buffs come in all sizes and uniforms. As regular readers of this blog may be tired of hearing already, I am a baseball fan. I have my favorites among the teams and certain players whose skill and style lift my mood. One of these is the National’s Anthony Rendon, who shines wherever they put him on the field.

However, Rendon ruffled a few feathers recently when, in answer to a reporter’s question about whether he would be watching the All Star Game during the break, he replied that he didn’t like to watch baseball because it was too long and boring. And that he preferred to watch The History Channel.

The way the media fell all over themselves analyzing this shocker was good for a few laughs. You would have thought he’d insulted the Pope. Some fair-minded reporters suggested that perhaps he had been kidding.

Well, all kidding aside, I’d like to think Rendon enjoys The History Channel from time to time. I mean, Ken Burns made a great documentary about baseball, too. What’s not to love?

Lost and Found in Austen

There'll always be an England in one small corner of Georgetown.
There’ll always be an England in one small corner of Georgetown.

Every fandom has its debates.

Gryffindor vs Slytherin. Edward vs Jacob. Angel vs Spike.

Fans of Jane Austen tend to be a civil bunch, disinclined to wage the sort of rough and tumble debate that thrives on the internet. Although, much as I like Colin Firth, whose 1995 portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the TV series raised the bar for repressed heroes everywhere,  I think we can all agree that the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen film version of Pride and Prejudice was as close to perfection as we are likely to see. Ever.

However, that doesn’t stop us from allowing our modest hopes to rise every time some trailer bursts on the scene announcing a new take on the works of Miss Austen. Thus, when I saw the wacky clips from the 2013 spoof Austenland, I couldn’t help hoping it would at least be watchable. After all, the cast included Keri Russell, Jenifer Coolidge and Bret Mackenzie, all gifted actors adept at light comedy. It seemed reasonable to expect something entertaining.

To be fair, the movie wasn’t terrible. But it was no moon shot. In spite of an amusing premise — a modern American woman visits an Austen theme park in England in hopes of finding her own Mr. Darcy — the film managed to shoot itself in the slippered foot.

Yet of course, Austennut that I am, I still enjoyed it. It’s comforting to believe that there are other people similarly obsessed with the carefully edited and beautifully observed world of Austen’s novels.

I had only the sketchiest idea about her work when I went to college. But there, while seeking respite from the weighty work of Aristotle and Plato, I came across an old copy of Pride and Prejudice in the college library. From the famous first sentence I knew she was The One, the writer I could count on to soothe my soul and provide escape from the fractious static of the so-called real world.

People who don’t enjoy fiction must, I presume, find other ways to negotiate the sticky parts and sharp curves that give life its curious flavor. But for me, fiction has always been essential.

I’ve never been to England. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make the trip to visit the places Austen describes. Perhaps those places don’t exist anymore, at least not in the way they did when she was writing. But I know how I’ve always seen them in my mind.

Recently I discovered a place right here in the District that comes close to that imaginary ideal. On a surprisingly secluded 5-1/2 acre property at the northern edge of Georgetown, Tudor Place offers a serene glimpse into the past. In the gardens, especially if you are an Austen fan, you can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet strolling the gravel paths, enjoying the roses and the grand trees, while musing on the perplexing business of human emotion. And perhaps hoping to bump into Mr. Darcy in the shrubbery.

Old roses thrive in the sunny knot garden.
Old roses thrive in the sunny knot garden.
At the end of the bowling green a shady pool offers a perfect spot for a tryst.
At the end of the bowling green a shady pool offers a perfect spot for a tryst.
This "Millennium Landmark Tree" on the lawn is more than 200 years old. Jane would have loved it.
This “Millennium Landmark Tree” on the lawn is more than 200 years old. Jane would have loved it.
The song a robin sings plays on at Tudor Place.
The song a robin sings plays on at Tudor Place.

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.



Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I watched the Olympics on a small black and white television when I was a young child in the fifties. Like a lot of things—cars, music, telephones—television coverage of the Olympics was different then. We would watch contestants competing in real time. And the networks showed all the athletes, not just the Americans.

The slick packaging of sports as a form of entertainment hadn’t ascended to an Olympian level back then. The close-ups were limited, the interviews rare, and the camera angles not always the most dramatic. But the sense of watching something unique lent the event a glamor unmatched by today’s technically superior coverage.

When I was child I was given to understand that what made Olympic athletes different from other athletes was that Olympians came from all walks of life, that they were just regular humans who worked hard in their spare time to achieve athletic greatness for the honor of their country. There’s still an element of that beneath the massive marketing and the publicity circus that both sustains and feeds off the modern Olympics. But more often it seems that the athletes who climb their way onto the podium are nothing at all like ordinary mortals. Most of them devote years to develop the skills and strength and mental fortitude essential to compete at the highest level.

Perhaps this is how the Olympics were always meant to be. Perhaps my childish notion of an Olympic competition as a bloodless pageant that could, ideally, foster peace and understanding between all the nations of the world was as naive as many of my ideas at that age.  But even now, when I watch the Olympics, marveling at the unparalleled daring and skill and grace of the competitors, that same naive hope still burns bright as any Olympic torch.

In the Sochi Olympics I’ve been mesmerized in particular by the ice dancing. For many years I never paid much attention to the ice skaters. I could skate. Big deal.

Then I saw Charlie White and Meryl Davis skate together, and I realized that what I did wasn’t even the equivalent of crawling compared to the athletes who dance on ice and make it look easy.

White and Davis, who have been skating together for seventeen years, met as eight-year-olds in Michigan. Last night they won the gold medal in ice dancing for the United States, the first time an American team has won the gold since the sport was accepted into the Olympics in 1976.

While many Olympic events seem focused on driving athletes to go faster, higher, and farther, not many require the synthesis of artistry, passion, and teamwork that make ice dancing so thrilling. Sure, there are always a few people who don’t get it. Some people seem suspicious of any sport that doesn’t involve grunting.

On ice White and Davis move with breathtaking precision and fluid grace that is nothing short of astonishing. Watching them swirling over the ice I was reminded of a line from an old jazz ballad, Crazy He Calls Me: “The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible may take a little while.”

It took seventeen years, but White and Davis did the impossible last night. On Russian soil they performed with flawless brilliance. Some may flap flags and feel proud to American, and that’s part of it. But for me, their performance makes me feel hopeful for humanity.

If our crazy self-destructive species can still turn out a pair of kids like Charlie White and Meryl Davis, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Go Team Earth!

Time Travels

We are all adrift, bound for unknown shores.

Of all the genres in all the fictional universe there’s only one that has never persuaded me to cast my doubts aside and surrender. Stories about time travel leave me cold.

So when I heard the buzz about the 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” I remained skeptical, in spite of my admiration for its star, Aubrey Plaza, a girl with a million dollar scowl.

Plaza, whose deadpan sarcasm keeps the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” from succumbing to lethal sweetness, brings just the right blend of cynicism and vulnerability to “Safety Not Guaranteed.”  The plot begins with a lackluster Seattle reporter (Jake Johnson), who finagles a road trip with a couple of office interns, one of whom is Darius (Plaza), to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a willing participant in a time travel adventure “safety not guaranteed.”

I have to confess that one of the things that got under my skin about this film was the setting. It was shot in Ocean Shores, Washington, where the water is always too cold to swim, and the interface between reality and make-believe is a misty curtain easily shredded by the intrepid. The entire film has a kind of funky Seattle-esque vibe that reminded me of why I stayed there so long.

Through the actions of the three reporters, the film explores the uncertain terrain between belief and doubt. In other hands this kind of material could have devolved into slapstick or the kind of crude buddy routines that have become the substandard for directors aiming for blockbuster revenues, but director Colin Trevorrow keeps the film quick witted and light on its feet.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is true to its title. This small budget film subverts expectations and draws you in. At least it drew me in. I still don’t give a damn about time travel—having drunk deeply from the Star Trek well, I know that no good can come from pulling at the loose threads of Time’s sweater. Yet no matter how we try to get on with our lives, we are all two-headed—always looking forward or looking back, and the tendency to wonder “what if?” is part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes us great, even while it has the potential destroy us.

As Kenneth, the seemingly crazy guy who placed the ad which sparks the story, Mark Duplass conveys that mesmerizing blend of genius and madness that is the hallmark of so many remarkable characters. Duplass has an off-beat style and edgy demeanor that come across as comic one minute and surprisingly affecting the next. The chemistry between him and Plaza is terrific.

Big Beach, the company which produced “Safety Not Guaranteed,” has been responsible for a number of exceptional independent films, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sunshine Cleaning.” On the company’s website they describe their goal thusly: “Big Beach strives to create meaningful, life-affirming projects that inspire, engage and entertain.”

Mission accomplished.

I still have reservations about time travel, but I’m ready to book a ticket for the next film from Big Beach.

Lend Me Your Ears

Where does enchantment lie?

Some say the eyes. Some say the lips. Still others succumb to the seductive spell of great hair.

Ears rarely enter into it. Yet, in the vast canon of fictional heroes, one character alone ranks above all others in the ear category. Mr. Spock’s greenish skin, slanting eyebrows, and air of self-control helped set him apart from the rest of the crew of the original Star Trek when the show began in 1966. But it was Spock’s pointy ears that caught the public eye and won their hearts.

Next week, on April 2, one of those legendary ears will be auctioned off in Los Angeles. Bids are already rolling in, and experts predict the ear will go for at least one thousand dollars. Detached from Leonard Nimoy’s stately head, the silicone latex prosthetic attachment looks like a broken half of a fortune cookie, and hardly more valuable. But of course, the value of memorabilia is in the mind of the beholder.

Spock’s ear symbolizes the triumph of reason over emotion, wisdom over folly, sanity over the other thing. The sort of calm clear-headedness Spock’s character embodied remains an elusive goal for most of us ordinary humans. As a general rule, we can maintain calm, reasoned thought for only so long. Inevitably life’s slings and arrows poke us just once too often and off we go, flying into the irrational emotional tailspin represented on the original Star Trek in the all-too-human characters of Captain Jim Kirk (William Shatner’s defining role) and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Mr. Spock’s iconic ears resonate beyond the generation that grew up when Star Trek was new because succeeding generations still cling to the idea that brains can trump brawn, in spite of the continual evidence that it is by no means a sure thing. Perhaps that’s why we’ll pay a thousand bucks for a limp fake ear. Because, as James T. Kirk was fond of saying, we humans need to believe in the possibility of the impossible. We need belief. In ourselves, in our friends, in our nations, and in our dreams.

Another famous symbolic prop emerged in the golden era of Hollywood film when Dorothy donned the legendary ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Of course, there were several pairs created by the props  department, and over the years a few have been auctioned off. At the first auction by MGM in 1970, the red slippers went for $15,000. At the most recent sale in May 2000 they sold for $666,000. And they’re not even real rubies.

Of course, it’s not simply the shoes that people want. It’s the evocative power of their back-story, and the line that will forever be connected to them: “There’s no place like home.” That one goes deep into the well of human longing. E.T. longing. Thomas Wolfe longing. Eden.

On the face of it, Spock’s greenish pointy ears might not seem as embedded with significance, unless you step back, way back, lunar probe distance, and take a long look. From that perspective you can see, “There’s no place like space.” The final frontier. And it could be, if we don’t stop poisoning this planet.

The current unfolding nightmare in Japan should be enough to alert any rational human to the dangers of creating massive amounts of toxic waste for which we have no clean-up solutions. Yet the starry-eyed nuclear energy advocates insist we’ll figure out a way to deal with it eventually. It’s been more than sixty years since we started spreading radioactive waste around, and there is still no “solution” in sight.

Rational voices fall on deaf ears of corporate and political powers focused only on short-term profits at the expense of long-term planetary suicide. Perhaps the nuclear advocates sincerely believe that Science will somehow find a way to rewrite the laws of physics and biology, or, failing that, when we completely contaminate this planet, we can start over on another fresh planet.

Our continuing investment in nuclear energy is like a balloon mortgage on our planet. When it comes due, there’ll be hell to pay.

Where is Spock when we need him? Obama’s got prominent ears. If only they were a little more pointed.