We See Dead People

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.

The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.

The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.

The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.

I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.

These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.

As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.

A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.

We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”

When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.

If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.

Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:

There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.

We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of  history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.

I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.

There is no Spoon

My son wanted to watch a movie with lots of guns. Oh, where to start? A friend of mine suggested “Saving Private Ryan,” especially the beginning, which to my mind is one of the best battle scenes ever made. But I couldn’t find the DVD. I did, however, find “The Matrix,” with the wonderful line: “Guns. Lots of guns.” My son never saw the movie, so we put it on.

I have seen the movie a number of times. It is one of those movies where if it happens to come up in cable or I see it flit by on Netflix, I just get sucked back into it. I love it. The opening scene with Trinity taking everyone out – priceless. And of course its contributions to the popular culture: the blue and red pill, the kid saying “there is no spoon.” These are certainly is part of my vocabulary now.

1999. Wow – it is hard to believe it came out that long ago. I consider it a timeless movie – to me it really holds up. I didn’t see anything in the movie that screamed “oh, come on – we’re so much better now.” Star Wars is a great movie, but I don’t feel like it is any newer than 1977. It was a groundbreaking movie, and it had amazing and totally new effects, but I still see it firmly planted in the mid-seventies. The Matrix, though – it just seems newer than the nineties.

The premise, of course, is that the world the people live in is not real – it is the “matrix” – an illusion created in the minds of all humans, generated by artificially intelligent machines. In reality, humans are kept in vast tiers of pods. They are used as batteries for the machines – which of course makes no sense at all, but hey, you gotta have a story. Humans live, therefore, in a dreamlike state that is reality to them. Keanu Reeves plays “Neo,” the kid with mystic powers allowing him to see through the Matrix, and eventually, to bend it to his will.

I don’t know about you, but I do feel we are living in an illusory universe. A couple of years ago I ran into the theory that it not just possible, but probable, even inescapable, that reality is not real, and that we really are living in a computer simulation. This idea hasn’t just been hiding out on the fringe, either – even the New Yorker wrote about it last June. Regardless of whether we are in a computer simulation, or not, I have always been a fan of the multiverse – the idea that there are an infinite number of universes that exist besides our own. Why not? If you imagine our universe, all the stars, planets, galaxies, and the space in and around them, as fitting in a basketball, it is easy to imagine a whole roomful of basketballs, each one containing its own universe. If you go to the outer limits of our universe, what’s on the other side?

Even disregarding the idea of multiple universes, let’s look at this universe. If you look at the screen you are reading this on, it looks solid. It is solid glass or plastic. If you drop it it breaks, and you can cut yourself with a shard from it. Except, it’s not solid. It is mostly space. All things are mostly space. Everything breaks down to little spinning balls called atoms, which have a cloud of elections around their cores, and even these atoms are mostly space. There is space between atoms, too. It is a miracle anything seems solid, really.

And then look at light. We see an astonishingly small band of the electromagnetic spectrum. All those frequencies are there, we just don’t see them or perceive them – except perhaps as sunburn from UV. But even within the small band we do see, we don’t see all the colors available. The mantis shrimp can see far more colors than we do, in roughly the same range.

The Matrix speaks to this. It touches on the nagging thought that our world, perhaps, is not what it seems to be. That there is more to all this. That indeed we could be just part of an experiment from some extra-universal teenagers. It speaks to the thought that if we just take the red pill, all will be revealed.

I don’t consider this attitude crazy at all. I think it is healthy to be curious about this, to be curious about anything. I find it fascinating to read what people think about reality, and fascinating to think about what could really be going on.

One thing I am pretty sure of though is that we are not going to find a definitive answer. How could you verify the computer simulation theory? Find some half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach with the logo “Intel Inside?” on its backside? Dig into some cave somewhere and find a wall with the comment “//to be implemented” on it? No, it’s all speculation. Fun to think about, though.

And by the way, my son loved the movie.

 

The Big Chill

We have had mountains of snow this year in Central Oregon, and we are on track to get at least another foot of snow over the next couple of days. We have had snow on the ground since December 6th. But I don’t want to write about snow. Writing about the weather is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I will write, however, about how it is affecting us here in our community. As I said, it started snowing on December 6th, but the big dump came a week later. And then came the cold – temperatures in the ‘teens dropping to sub zero. Sisters, Oregon is on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest, and is a “destination” town for all kinds of outdoor activities, including camping. Central Oregon rents have been increasing the last few years, and therefore we have a contingent of homeless folks who make camp out in the National Forest or in their vehicles around town. In summer, it is actually doable. Since there is a lot of camping of all kinds, Sisters has amenities to support backpackers and campers. The National Forest allows “dispersed camping” which means you can trek out into the forest, find a spot away from people, and set up camp. So, some people opt out of apartments and elect to follow the primitive lifestyle. And then winter comes, and their campsites are buried in snow, and there’s no plowing out there.

On December 17th, Sisters was shocked by the death of a man who was found in his car across the street from McDonalds. He lived in his car, and he was known around town, at least in passing. He worked at McDonalds, and he spent time in the library on the computers. My son knew him from the library, but not well. The night of December 17, he slept in his car with the car running, and he died. The preliminary cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. The temperature that night went down to -5, and that was the first really cold night of the season. It was cold, the gentleman went into his car, turned it on, turned on the heat, and then was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes as he slept.

The truth came a day or two later: He did not die of carbon monoxide poisoning. He died of hypothermia. He froze to death. That shocked me and a number of other people in the community. His death was tragic in any circumstance, but with carbon monoxide, it was an accident that could be avoided – open the window, whatever. It was just bad luck.

But when a man freezes to death – that is different. He didn’t die because he was unlucky. He died because he was homeless. Despite having his car running, the cold still killed him. The cold was too much. The cold was greater than he and his circumstances, and it overcame what a prudent man might try to do to stay alive. And that was shocking.

He had family. How do you call his parent? How do you tell a father that his son froze to death in a car across from a McDonalds?

His death sent home the point that subzero temperatures are no joke, and that there are a number of people in our community who are at risk. It also sent home the reality that despite the fact that the economy is getting better, there are still a lot of people who are out there just on the edge of disaster.

 

I’m trying to think of some message that we can glean from this tragedy, some words of wisdom to impart that will wrap things up neatly, but I can’t. It really affected me that this man passed away, and that he did so in such a manner. It’s sad, and it shouldn’t have happened. Yes, accidents happen all the time, but the death of this man hit close to home, and it just shows that we have work to do, that we can’t just say to people “sink or swim.” These people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and yet they are still in trouble. They have jobs, they have cars, and yet, they succumb. I guess the thing to do is to be kind. To assume goodness. Most people are good. And help when you can.

On January 1st, members of the community set up the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter in one of our local churches to provide a warm place to stay to anyone who asks on nights where the temperatures go below freezing. This is a great thing, and it makes me proud that we chose Sisters as our home. This is a great example of the things we can do to help.

Newly Discovered Favorite Things

I ran into two things today that I had never heard of before, both of which I am happy I know about now. The first is a song by John Stewart called “Mother Country,” which was a song forwarded to me by a friend in response to an earlier post. I had never heard of John Stewart, and here was this beautiful and masterful performance that just carried me along for over six minutes. I looked up John Stewart and found out he was a member of the Kingston Trio, and had been performing since I was a baby. How could this be? And then I found out he recorded a song called “Gold” in the ’70s, which I remembered, and which I did not like. And ten years ago, he performed “Mother Country,” and thankfully it was recorded, and now it’s one of my favorite things.

The second thing I ran into was a movie. I had opened up Quora and on a list of questions was this one: “What movie can you watch all the time and never get tired of watching?” I opened it up, expecting the usual answers like “Die Hard,” “Forest Gump,” “True Romance,” “When Harry Met Sally,” etc. Well, one movie came up a couple of times that I had never heard of, an Indian Bollywood movie from 1971 called “Anand.” Here’s a movie that’s been out for forty-five years, and is such a favorite in India that there are people who would love to see it over and over, and yet, it was completely unknown to me. It is the story of a doctor who was dejected in his work, who was tired of death, and tired of poverty leading to death. Then one day, a friend of a friend comes to town who is terminally ill, named Anand. Anand has cancer, and has only three to four months to live. And yet, he is cheerful. He tells the doctor “yes, I am going to die, and you are going to die. Right now, your body is breaking down, getting older and weaker, and you have only forty years to live. What does it matter as long as we are alive now?” It is a remarkable movie. I can see why people want to see it over and over.

Two favorite things in one day.

I am an optimist by nature. I look at the world, and I have to believe that we are getting better and better. I know we’re getting better and better. I believe that you can find whatever you look for. But if you look at existence you have to look at the full spectrum of existence, not just slices. Oh, there are atrocities on this planet. Oh, you can’t think of a way to kill someone that hasn’t been perfected by someone somewhere and been done over and over. And you can’t conceive of the worst things that can happen and have happened. There is always something awful that we can be shocked by, disgusted by, and fearful of. And we can do what we can to eradicate these things. But if we are to wallow in the awfulness of Man and the evils of disease and disasters, we must also contemplate the opposite: Beethoven. Shakespeare. Charlie Parker. The Beatles. And we must celebrate the good in humanity, as well. Doctors without Borders. Electrical linemen who brave blizzards to turn the power back on. The billions of small and not-so-small miracles that happen every day. I believe there is more good than evil in this world. As Fred Rogers said to do when disaster strikes: “Look for the helpers.” There are always more helpers than there are evil doers. Always.

And when I contemplate the good that is in the world, I am constantly reminded that there are incredible things I have never seen, and wonderful people I have never met. There are songs that have been written that I have not heard that will be a favorite of mine some day. There are places I have never been to that will be magical places when I finally find them. There are amazing books that I have never read. And especially, good friends I have never met.

And that is true for all of us. Keep an eye out for great things, and great people, because they are out there, and they will be your favorite things some day. It makes me happy to know that.