Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Demon-Haunted World

Chances are when you hear the words “billions and billions” spoken, you do not hear them in your own voice, but in the voice of the late Carl Sagan – that is if you’ve ever seen Cosmos, the fascinating 13-part science series he wrote and narrated. (Although he really never said that in Cosmos.  We only think he did because Johnny Carson would often do a funny bit imitating Sagan and he would say “billions and billions”).   And that is the voice I heard as I settled into The Demon-Haunted World:  Science As A Candle In The Dark, published in 1996, the year of his death.  The book is so Saganesque that nearly two decades later, that slightly nasal, roundish voice is what I heard on every page. 

Sagan takes on all manner of magical thinking, without reservation:  pseudoscience, superstition, zealotry, witchcraft and “biblical literalists.”  UFO encounters, miraculous healings, beatific visions, claims of being teleported to alien spaceships all have prosaic explanations, he believed, once subjected to common sense analysis.  “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing them.”  Living in what is considered the most haunted city in America, I must take umbrage with his scoffing at the existence of ghosts, however, for they most certainly do exist.  Savannah has oodles of them; we’ve built a burgeoning tourist industry on them.  One stormy night I’ll tell you about my own experiences.  But, for now we will only speak about this incredibly enthralling book.

In short, Carl Sagan was the nonpareil scientist who believed only that which can stand up to scientific proof.  One might come away with the conviction that Sagan was an atheist; however, he denied this.  Sagan explained faith as belief in the absence of evidence; he would simply withhold belief until there was evidence.  If one could actually prove an infinitely old universe, he argued, then one might be able to disprove the existence of a God Creator.  An atheist essentially declares there is no God – a theory which Sagan believed was impossible to prove - at least in his lifetime with the tools currently at our disposal.  He fit more comfortably into the cloak of an agnostic.  I believe if God could be proven there would be no need for faith; and, science requires that we skeptically interrogate the universe.  But I find no discordant notes between the two, probably because I’d rather not.

As dismissive as he was regarding the validity of “miracles” and a life after death, he was nevertheless very careful to acknowledge the positivity religion can bring to the lives of humans: history, ethics, compassion, morals, and poetry can, and often do, find their roots in religious belief.  Where he found fault was in what he termed “biblical literalists” who believed in a God who spoke to an unerring stenographer, leaving no room for allegory or metaphor or interpretation.  Sagan did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily.

It is no surprise that Sagan was a great champion of reading and critical thinking, which are delightfully subversive and dangerous in any unjust society.  This was true in the days of American slavery and is true today in cultures that can only thrive if certain segments of the population are kept in the darkness illiteracy breeds.  As he rightly points out, tyrants have always understood that literacy and the free expression of ideas through books and newspapers encourage thought.  Thought begets disobedience and skepticism and, ultimately, power over the tyrant.  “The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation.  We all bear the cost of keeping it running.”  Sadly, not much has changed since he wrote those words a generation ago. One only needs to look at reading scores (if students are even tested anymore in our culture of “everyone wins so no feelings are hurt.”). 

Sagan tells the story of a young slave named Frederick Bailey who understood literacy was the path to freedom.  Armed with that understanding, he taught himself to read, fled to New England, and changed his name to Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.  Douglass went on to become one of the greatest orators in American history.  As Sagan says, “There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom.  But reading is still the path.”

If it can be said that there is a dichotomy between science and mysticism, Carl Sagan himself was a sort of fascinating dichotomy.  His greatest hero was Thomas Jefferson, which surprised me.   Not that Jefferson doesn’t deserve the accolade (he is a hero of mine as well), but there is a bit of disconnect when in extolling Jefferson’s virtues as a scientist, botanist, astronomer, philosopher, writer, thinker and, of course, chief author of the Declaration of Independence – he fails to point out he was also a slaveholder.  This is what Sagan might call two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought.  It also makes him more human and approachable.

Reading The Demon-Haunted World, though not tome-like, took longer to finish than I expected.  Not because it wasn’t gripping and exceedingly well written; it was both.  But I found myself going off on tangents, putting the book down to find more information on topics he was raising, like Franz Mesmer, or Project Ozma, or Edward Teller and thermonuclear war (which is far more frightening than the prospect of being teleported to a space ship or running into a ghost at the top of the attic stair, let me tell you).  But I was also fascinated by Carl Sagan, the person, and in his private life.  I can see why people either loved or despised him.  (Apparently, he could be something of a pill.  His second wife understandably finds it hard to forgive him after he informed her that he and their mutual friend, Ann Druyan, discovered they were hopelessly in love and were going to get married.)  Sagan seems to have had an insatiable need for attention – both personally and in his work.  But the man could think, and write, and inspire.  This book is wise, elegant, lucid, unyielding and as far from dull as science can get.  We have lost much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

...And The Cow Jumped Over The Moon

The room was quiet and bathed in mid-morning light.  I had been reading for an hour but it was time to accomplish the work of the day.  I closed my book and looked over to where my mother sat at her usual place on the couch, wrapped as always in a blanket for she is perpetually cold – or so she says.   Her eyes were closed; she was asleep.  I noticed her hands resting on her chest.  I began to cry.   I began to cry because something hit me sharp and hard.  It hurt.  To those hands, which were always so strong and yet so gentle, I owe so much.   Those were the cool hands I felt on my hot brow when I was sick; they were the ones that sewed my favorite childhood dress.  She let me pick the fabric and I chose a soft white cotton with small cartoon-like drawings of people on it:  ladies in stylish hats and carrying purses over their arms, little children running with hoops, men in bowlers.  I called it “my people dress” and except for my wedding gown I can’t remember being more enamored with a piece of clothing than I was with that one. 

My mother took me shopping with her quite a bit.  She didn’t drive back then and so we always walked.  As we walked, instead of holding hands we would clap each other’s hand.  Walk, clap, walk, clap, walk, clap.  It was a silly game and so inconsequential that I should probably not be able to remember it. But the longer I live the more I realize things which seem of no particular consequence at the time dimple our memories with the deepest impressions.   On these excursions, we would usually pass a little bookshop on Cermak Road.   I haven’t been back to the old neighborhood in many decades, but it has probably been replaced with a fast food joint or 7-11 convenience store and is nothing more than an old ghost now.  One day as we passed the shop, I saw a new Nancy Drew book in the window.  It cost $1.00.  I begged; my mother hesitated.  I loved books even then and she always acted as co-conspirator and egger-on, feeding my habit.   But a dollar carried more heft in the late 1950s when a first class stamp was 4 cents and a gallon of milk or a trip to the movies cost a quarter each.   She looked at me and at the window and at me.  I carried home my treasure.

At Christmas, weddings and funerals we always had Potica.  It is THE dish of Slovenia and no occasion of joy or mourning could be complete without it.  She would make the yeasty dough and roll it out as thinly as she could without tearing.  Although there are variations, Mom’s filling would always be the same – and of course I believe the best.  It consisted of ground walnuts, honey, meringue, and a little cinnamon.  I watched as her hands manipulated the dough, and spread the walnut concoction, and coxed the whole thing into a roll to be placed in a tube pan.  When it came out of the oven, we could at last declare it to be Christmas.  My mother was a wonderful cook, but she wasn’t a particularly organized one.  She was decidedly unappreciative of company in the kitchen during the preparation of a big meal.   If one was able to sneak a gander at what was going on in there, the sight would alarm all but the stout of heart.  Pots, dripping spoons, potato peelings, more pots with covers belching steam, splashes of tomato or of gravy, cookbooks strewn hither, scraps of paper that held instructions for the making of some exotic morsel taped to a cabinet,  yet more pots with covers askew to overflowing, and lots of boiling, bubbling, gurgling chaos.  What emerged, however, was nothing short of fabulous – and with candles for the table.  It was only at the end of the perfect meal, when we children were assigned the task of flotsam and jetsam removal, that the madness which preceded genius was revealed.

Another of my mother’s specialties was something she called “Orange Blossom Punch” and was made with two types of citrus sherbet, orange juice concentrate, and 7-Up – with maraschino cherries tossed in “for color.”  She always served it after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (with potica) and she always put the punch bowl on the piano.  I don’t know if it was out of a superstition of some sort (both of my parents were blessed with an abundance of them) but the piano it always was and always had to be.  Growing up, I remember so many holidays that my mother made special with the work of her hands.  One particular Halloween I came home from school, eager to get dressed up as a bum, and found the dining room table filled with wondrous things.  While we were at school she must have spent the entire day getting ready for the moment.  She had hollowed out oranges, cut smiling Jack-O-Lantern faces in the shells, and filled them with jello.  There were also Hoot-Owl cookies she constructed using part chocolate and part vanilla dough which she shaped into owl heads, a cashew for the beak.  They were little works of art.  But of, course, my mother was an artist.

If you look around my house or walk into my office you will see the splendid examples of art wrought by my mother’s hands.  She is – or was – very gifted.  Although watercolor was her medium of choice, she did splendid work in pen & ink and chalk.  But she also built things, like the riding toy made from plywood with a base that rocked.  On the sides she painted a crescent moon onto the rounded base, and  higher up a cow in full jump in a sky full of stars – with the words “…and the cow jumped over the moon.”  This she made for my son, John.  She made it quietly, with no fanfare.  I can imagine her plotting it out, standing back as she painted, judging her work, striving to get it just right.  She painted it gently and brightly with an awesomeness only she could manage.

My mother has entered her 96th year.  She is often confused about the day – not just the date, but whether it is morning or night, whether one puts milk or water in the coffee maker, which of those doors upstairs leads to her bedroom.   She wonders when her son is bringing back her dog, the one he borrowed for the weekend, the one that in fact has been gone for many years.   When her sister died last year at the age of 98, I decided there was no point in telling her.  I want her to be happy.  The past can be a nice comfortable place to be.   I just finished a wonderful book entitled The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley, the first line of which is “The past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  Yes, they do.  That is where my mother calms a fevered brow, bakes surprises for her children, works a band saw, paints a bowl of peonies or a crane in the marsh looking for a fish.  That is where she captures the steeple of a church rising high above the tree tops reaching toward heaven -  reaching into forever.  And where, suspended in the dark blue firmament, a cow jumps over a silvery crescent moon, chasing stars.