Soylent Green And The Bleak Sci-Fi Of The ’60s and ’70s

2022 is not only our fresh new year, it’s also the year in which the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green was set. Soylent Green envisioned a truly awful 2022: the world was grossly overpopulated, mass starvation provoked regular food riots until the masses received their “soylent” food rations, the environment had been ruined by pollution, and people were at the mercy of a cold-blooded authoritarian police state. The movie allowed Charlton Heston to exercise some of his legendary scenery-chewing acting instincts, including the classic final scene where Heston shouts to the world: “Soylent green is people! It’s people!”

In short, Soylent Green sets a very low bar for our 2022. This year might not be great, but at least it’s unlikely that we’ll be eating each other.

We’re living through a lot of the years in which bleak sci-fi movies and stories were set–Blade Runner, for example, was set in 2019–and the future hasn’t turned out to be as grim as the writers envisioned. There’s always been a pretty strong tradition of horrific futures in science fiction, as writers took whatever seemed to be the problems of the day, multiplied them, and extrapolated them forward into terrible future worlds that were dark, overcrowded, starving, wrecked, merciless, and governed by fascists. (If that tradition holds true, current sci fi writers may well be envisioning distant futures where epidemics rage.)

Of course, most of those visions turned our to be wrong. We haven’t experienced a nuclear holocaust, been terrorized by killer artificial intelligence or intelligent apes, seen our oceans turned to sewage, or experienced planet-wide starvation and horrific plagues. Sci-fi writers of the ’60s and ’70s would no doubt be stunned to learn that one of the biggest health problems in our real world of 2022 isn’t starvation–it’s obesity!

Our Neighborhood Book Nook

One of the best things about our German Village neighborhood is our nearby bookstore, the Book Loft of German Village. It’s just about the perfect bookstore: a multi-floor maze of 32 rooms of books, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, book bags, posters, book-themed refrigerator magnets, and pretty much anything else you would hope to find in a bookstore. It’s got a wide selection of books and the kind of rambling organization that makes a bookstore comfortable, and great. With an odd chair here and there, you can plop down and give a potential purchase some careful study before you commit.

It’s a tradition for me to hit the Loft for some Christmas shopping every holiday season. It’s always a fun visit that yields some impulse purchases, too.

A Christmas Carol

Last night I watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. It has become a holiday tradition of sorts for me: every Christmas season I try to watch at least one of the film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic story of a mean, miserly skinflint who is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on Christmas Eve. All of the films present creditable versions of the story, but I particularly like the George C. Scott version because he is so believable as the initially heartless, but ultimately redeemed, Ebenezer Scrooge and because it adopts, verbatim, many of the lines penned by Dickens .

A Christmas Carol was first published on December 19, 1843, meaning that the still-vital character of Scrooge celebrates his 178th birthday today. Dickens, who by then had already begun his long and successful career as a novelist, came up with the idea for the story only a few weeks before, when he went to speak at the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization devoted to helping the urban poor. Dickens was personally receptive to the plight of the downtrodden and impoverished people of England; his father had been thrown into a debtors’ prison, and Dickens had gone to work in a factory at age 12.

Dickens initially thought of publishing a pamphlet on the problems of Want and Ignorance (later personified in his story as the gaunt and frightening children under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present) that he would call “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”  But he soon decided his appeal for generosity could be more persuasively presented as a story, and we can all be grateful for that, because it allowed him to create one of the great fictional characters and story arcs in the history of literature. By turning what would have been a dry political polemic into a story, Dickens could couch his message in a powerful tale of regret and redemption. And because he was a masterful writer, Dickens could answer key questions–like how did Scrooge get to be that way?–that allowed him to turn a greedy, unfeeling monster into a sympathetic character by the end of the story. Who doesn’t pity Scrooge and root for him to open his heart, change his ways, and hear Tiny Tim say “God bless us, every one”?

I like watching A Christmas Carol because it inevitably causes each viewer to reflect on their own lives and their own decisions and–hopefully–resolve to become better people in the days to come.

Waiting On The Winds

Some things seem to take forever . . . but nothing seems to take as long as the release of the next book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, on which the Game of Thrones TV show was based. Called The Winds Of Winter, its release date has been repeatedly delayed.

Multiple presidential elections have come and gone. The HBO series hit the pinnacle of popularity and ended. Pandemics have swept the face of the globe. And still A Song Of Ice And Fire readers wait, and wait, and wait — like the poor unfortunates who are trying to get out of Africa that the narrator describes at the beginning of Casablanca.

Author George R.R. Martin has taken progressively longer to release the next volume in the series. The first book was published in 1996 (that’s 25 years ago, but who’s counting?), the second in 1998, the third in 2000, the fourth in 2005, and the fifth in 2011. In short, fans of the series have been waiting for a full decade for the next book. We’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that I’ve written before–six years ago–about the delayed publication date, and we don’t seem to be any closer to an actual release of the book. And The Winds Of Winter isn’t even the last book in the series!

Why do fans care about this? After all, some would point out, the HBO series told us how the story ends. But the books are much richer in detail in their description of Westeros and its inhabitants and their culture, with important characters who never even made it on the TV show screen. And while I’m not as negative as some are about the ending of the HBO series, I’d like to see how the creator of this compelling world wraps up the story. Of course, I’ll have to go back and reread the prior books when The Winds Of Winter comes out, just to make sure that I am fully recalling all of the different plot threads.

So, when is the next book coming out? No one but Martin really knows, but the speculation is that it will hit the bookstores in November 2023–a mere two years away. Having waited for a decade, I guess I can endure another two years.

Or three, or four . . . .

On The Eleventh Minute Of the Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect, and World War I thereby ended. Ever since, the Allied nations have remembered that day–known as Remembrance Day in France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth nations, and first as Armistice Day, and later as Veterans Day, in the United States. By tradition, those countries observe a moment of silence on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to commemorate the fallen and the wounded.

Why all the elevens? It’s pretty clear that the armistice wasn’t delayed in order to achieve a symmetry of numbers; both the Allies and their opponents were exhausted and depleted by years of bloody fighting and were more than ready for it to stop as soon as possible. In fact, many of the opposing powers–including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Bulgaria–had reached armistices with the Allies before November 11; only Germany was a holdout. The armistice with the German Empire was finally reached at 5:10 a.m. on November 11 and was to take effect at 11 a.m., to allow the news and cease fire orders to be transmitted to the troops on the front line.

By then, choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as the time for the fighting to stop must have had a poetic quality that was impossible to resist. The concept of the “eleventh hour” as the very last point at which something can be done has long been a part of western civilization. It finds its roots in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew 20:1-16. Those hired early in the day agreed to work for a denarius a day and, after working for a full day, were upset when those hired later in the day–including at the eleventh hour–were paid the same amount. (For those unfamiliar with the parable, the vineyard owner holds the early workers to their agreement and says he gets to decide what to do with his money and concludes with the phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen,” which also became a well-known phrase.)

By the time November 11, 1918 arrived, the participants in World War I probably felt that they had reached the last point at which something could be salvaged. By then, millions of soldiers and civilians had died in what was easily the bloodiest war ever fought to that point, and many of those who survived were left horribly wounded by gas attacks, lost body parts, and the traumas of trench warfare and shell shock. Dynasties were toppled, and the old ways of fighting gave way to the new, with World War I ushering in the era of tanks, and aerial warfare, and poison gas. By the time the war ended entire generations had been brutally decimated, and the desperate participants no doubt wondered why they had decided to fight the pointless war in the first place.

In short, they had reached their “eleventh hour.” It seems fitting that that is when the war effectively ended.

A Clean, Well, Quieter Place

One of my favorite short stories is A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in which Ernest Hemingway tells the story of an old guy drinking in a cafe. A young waiter, impatient to move on with his evening, rips the old guy for hanging around rather than going home so the cafe can close up. The older waiter, made a bit more patient and understanding by years of life, respects the old guy’s need for a clean, well-lighted place where he can enjoy a drink before heading back to his presumably lonely life. It’s a great story, written in the classic, straightforward Hemingway declarative sentence style, that speaks to both the young and old among us.

I suspect that if the old guy were around these days he not only would be looking for a clean, well-lighted place, but also one that is quieter, too. So many modern restaurants seem to be intentionally designed and consciously configured to be as loud as possible, as if a raucous atmosphere will make a place seem really exciting (and, perhaps, compensate for marginal food). It’s annoying for those of us who want to have a nice conversation over our dinner, and find ourselves unable to do so because of the din. I suspect that the old guy in the Hemingway tale would be irritated by the noise, too.

So I am happy to report that the new Sycamore restaurant in German Village has dialed back the noise level to the point where you can actual talk to the people you are eating with, without shouting or asking people to repeat everything. The prior incarnation of the restaurant was so loud that was impossible, and in my view made eating there unpleasant. Last night we took a large group to the Sycamore, had a great meal–the food is uniformly terrific–and enjoyed lots of chat over our dinner. I’m hoping that is a sign that the trend toward ever louder restaurants has ended, and the proprietors are recognizing the value of some effective sound-dampening. efforts

If I want a loud venue, I’ll go to a sports bar where I can drink beer, eat chicken wings, and cheer for my team without worrying about irritating fellow diners. But if a want to good meal, give me a clean, well, quieter place.

Truth, Justice, And A Better Tomorrow

Some people on the conservative end of the political spectrum are pretty upset at DC Comics, which publishes the Superman comic books. They’re miffed that The Man of Steel is changing his motto.

For years, Superman has professed to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Many of us know this because we watched reruns of the ’50s Adventures of Superman TV show on UHF channels when we were growing up. We remember the introduction to the series, shown above, where a serious sounding narrator, after noting that Supes was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, informed us that he fought for truth, justice, and the American Way while the actor playing Superman sucked in his gut and the American flag waved in the background.

DC Comics says it is changing Superman’s motto to “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow” to reflect a broader, more global vision for Supes’ world. You can tell it’s a conscious effort to update the comic book hero to modern norms, because the article linked above quotes DC Comics’ “chief creative officer” as saying, without evident concern for exaggeration: “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward with this new mission statement.”

That’s right: Superman now has a “mission statement.”

The kerfuffle about The Man of Steel’s motto is another great contrived point of contention for “commentators” to argue about, but even as manufactured media controversies go it’s pretty thin gruel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with punching out bad guys or reversing the rotation of the Earth to try to bring about “a better tomorrow,” and it’s not like standing for “the American Way” has any well-defined, specific meaning these days. Does it mean supporting the freedoms enumerated in Bill of Rights, or the ability to eat snack foods while sitting on your couch and binge-watching the latest hot Netflix series, or something else?

I’m perfectly content to let comic book characters change with the times. And if Superman wants to update the part about being faster than a speeding bullet, because that image is too triggering for the current generation, and more powerful than a locomotive, because nobody thinks of locomotives as especially powerful these days, I’m fine with that, too.

Not Forgetful, But Efficiently Brainy

In A Study In Scarlet, Doctor Watson was astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes did not profess to know whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Holmes, unembarrassed by his unfamiliarity with basic astronomy, responded to Watson with a famous analogy:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought about Holmes’ notion when I ran across this article about the relationship of intelligence and forgetfulness. It reports on a study that concludes that forgetfulness is important to “intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.” As one of the researchers explained, the study demonstrates that “[t]he real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

Intelligent brains therefore are quick to jettison memory of irrelevant or unnecessary information–which might be things like the names of people you haven’t seen in months, the details of a conversation that happened some time ago, or whether the sun revolves around the earth–to ensure there is space for relevant information that will actually be needed in your daily decision-making. And here’s some good news for those of us who have been around for a while: the study indicates that older brains forget accumulated older information in order to make room for newer information. So those “senior moments” aren’t a sign of approaching mental feebleness, they are just your brain efficiently sifting through the pile of debris and trying to get the limited space in your mental attic in order.

So Sherlock Holmes was right, and the study confirms the ultimate accuracy of his analysis of the human brain as like an attic with limited storage space. Of course, being Holmes, he probably wouldn’t read about the study in the first place.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.

Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.

Lessons From Churchill

I’ve just finished Andrew Roberts’ titanic Churchill: Walking With Destiny, about one of the leading historical figures of the 20th century. The 1,000-page volume, published in 2018, draws upon recently released historical documents to trace Winston Churchill’s life in exacting detail, from his early childhood and painful desire to be loved and respected by his father–something that never happened, sadly–through years of turmoil, disaster, and triumph. It’s a fascinating tale of a colossal figure who first came to prominence in the high Victorian era, at the apex of the British Empire, saw Great Britain and its empire fight two world wars, witnessed the dissolution of that empire, lived into the era of the Beatles, and was celebrated with one of the largest state funerals ever given to a non-royal Brit.

Roberts’ book is a compelling read about a fascinating individual. Churchill was a well-rounded figure, with many virtues, and a lot of flaws, too. He was a glory hound in his early days, and his love for the British Empire brought with it a benighted attitude about race and people in the Empire, as well as a belief in the superiority of the British approach that caused him to accept risks that shouldn’t have been accepted. On the other hand, he was extraordinarily hard-working, brilliant, a gifted writer, a great wit, a compelling speaker who turned many a memorable phrase, and the unyielding leader whose fight and pluck and rhetoric stiffened Great Britain’s resolve and kept it in the war when it faced the German war machine, alone, during the dark days of World War II.

One of the book’s themes is that, for all of his brilliance and self-confidence, Churchill was someone who could learn from his many mistakes, rise above them, and–crucially–identify and assimilate changes to his world view that allowed him to avoid repeating them. Churchill’s advocacy of the bloody, ill-fated and ultimately disastrous Dardanelles expedition in World War I could have sent a lesser person slinking off to a life of obscurity, and it haunted Churchill, and was repeatedly mentioned by his adversaries, even when Churchill began serving as Prime Minister in 1940 after the fall of France. But Churchill didn’t let that colossal failure forever cripple his career; he learned from it and other errors and ultimately profited from the very hard lessons it taught. Churchill’s approach to his stout-hearted service during World War II was strongly informed by those lessons and his prior experiences–good and bad.

I’ve been reflecting on Churchill and that important element of his personality these days, when we have seen the United States take a huge black eye with its inept, disastrous, and humiliating failure in Afghanistan. Obviously, many mistakes were made, and there is plenty of blame to go around for all of the four Presidents, and their administrations, who contributed to the Afghan debacle. But the key point now is how to react to those obvious mistakes. Those of us who lived through Vietnam feel like we’ve seen this show before, and now wonder whether our country will ever learn. Will we finally focus our attention–and treasure, and finite resources–on the matters that are truly essential to our national security? Will we resist future temptations to try to build mini-Americas in faraway countries with radically different cultures and perspectives? Will we be able to recognize and avoid “mission creep,” identify the policies and institutional processes that produced the Afghan fiasco and change them, and actually hold accountable the incompetent people who failed to do their job and, in the process, put thousands of people at risk and cost us billions of dollars in equipment and money and a considerable part of our national reputation?

What has happened in Afghanistan is an embarrassment and an epic failure that featured countless mistakes and misjudgments. Having read Roberts’ biography, I’m convinced Churchill would have learned from those errors and recognized how to avoid them in the future. Can our country do the same?

Children’s Books And Lasting Lessons

At the southeast corner of Schiller Park, a pedestrian can take two routes. One can use the access driveways in and out of the parking lot to cut the corner and save a few steps. Or, one can go through the driveways to the actual corner beyond before turning the corner and continuing the walk. I always walk through to the corner beyond the driveway before turning, and when I do I think “neat and square.”

“Neat and square” is a line from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I read as a kid. It’s just one of the things that has stuck with me from that book Mom first read to me so long ago.

You may know the story. Mike Mulligan has a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Mike was proud of her and the work they could do together, and boasted of Mary Anne’s capabilities. And Mike and Mary Anne did the job right, always finishing the corners of what they dug “neat and square.” But it was hard for an old-fashioned steam shovel to compete with newfangled diesel-powered digging machines. In one troubling scene in the book, Mike and Mary Anne view a junk heap of other sad, discarded steam shovels that have been abandoned by their owners. But Mike is loyal to Mary Anne and would never dream of doing that.

Mike goes out to a small town that is digging a cellar for a new town hall and gets the job on the condition that he and Mary Anne can dig the basement in just one day. When the day comes, Mike and Mary Anne continue to do the job right, and finish the corners neat and square, even though the clock is against them. A crowd gathers, which causes Mike and Mary Anne to work faster than ever before—and just as the sun is setting they finish the job. But there’s a problem: in their frenzied rush to complete the digging in just one day, Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a ramp for Mary Anne to exit the cellar, and she is trapped. Fortunately, a boy in the crowd suggests that Mary Anne use her steam to become the new furnace, the town builds the town hall around her, and the story happily ends with Mary Anne heating the hall and Mike serving as its janitor.

It’s a good book, with some powerful messages that resonated with me. Do the job right, and be proud of your work. Be loyal to those you work with. And recognize that sometimes difficult problems can be solved with creative thinking.

Those lessons have stuck with me for decades. It just shows that reading to your children can really have a lifelong impact.

The Wright Brothers

Recently I finished David McCullough’s 2015 book The Wright Brothers — coincidentally completing it when I was 20,000 feet up in the air, flying from Austin to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and thereby owing a debt to Wilbur and Orville, the two brothers who solved the age-old puzzle of whether humans could fly.

As a native Ohioan, I’m ashamed to admit that while I knew that the Wright brothers were recognized as the inventors of the airplane, I actually knew very little about these two men from Dayton, or how they came to invent their “Flyer” that dazzled kings, prime ministers, Presidents, and ordinary people. McCullough’s book is a fascinating read that adroitly tells that story, focusing on the period when the brothers made their discoveries and inventions that changed the course of history. The book introduces us to these two brothers from an extraordinarily close-knit family who worked together for years, designed their own “safety bicycle,” which they called the “Van Cleve,” developed a successful bicycle business–and then became obsessed with solving the mystery of flight.

The context of their story is important, because the Wright brothers lived during an era when inventions were fundamentally transforming their world in countless ways–inventions like the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light, among many others. It was an era of great technological progress, when almost anything seemed possible. But human flight seemed to be the one step that could not be taken. In fact, some reputable publications flatly declared that human flight was impossible. The Wright brothers didn’t agree, and they put their noses to the grindstone and came up with the solution that now allows us to climb onto planes and cross hundreds of miles up in the air without giving it a second thought.

One theme of McCullough’s book is that the story of the Wright brothers is a story of the value of hard work, dedication, resolve, and focus. The brothers worked hard–six days a week, taking only Sunday off–and painstakingly addressed each problem presented and carefully overcame every obstacle. They talked for hours about the best way to design the wings, the rudder, and other parts of the plane, helping to spur their many innovations. They repeatedly put their lives on the line to test their invention. And each aspect of the Wright brothers’ Flyer–the wings and their design, the steering mechanism, the propellers, and the motor–had to be created and developed out of whole cloth. The Wright brothers’ story is the classic Horatio Alger tale in which the heroes achieve success through pluck, perseverance, and industriousness.

It was only a few short years between the Wright brothers’ first flight of their flyer, skimming above the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina–shown in the photograph above–and the development of a practical airplane that, as shown below, could soar above the harbor waves and circle the Statue of Liberty, astonishing the jaded citizenry of New York City. And once the Wright brothers solved the riddle, and not incidentally received patents for their inventions, everyone started building flying machines, and the modern air age began.

Wilbur Wright died young, succumbing to typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, but Orville Wright lived until 1948–long enough to see the airplane he helped invent used in two world wars, drop the atomic bomb, become a practical method of everyday transportation, and be upgraded with the development of jet engines and supersonic flight.

It’s quite a story, really, and well worth the read.

The Newest Little Library

I’m a big fan of the “little libraries” that have sprung up in German Village, in Stonington, and in many other communities. Books—especially paperbacks—shouldn’t sit on shelves gathering dust; once they have been read they should be shared with others. The little libraries are a great way to do that, and they also help to keep a house decluttered. We’ve contributed books to the little libraries in German Village and up here as well.

This new little library popped up in our neighborhood within the last week. I appreciate the nautical theme and the craftsmanship, too.

Cane Fighting

For some reason–probably having to do with my birth date–I received a notice on Google, or Facebook, or some other on-line source about this book on Amazon: Cane Fighting: The Authoritative Guide to Using a Cane or Walking Stick for Self-Defense. I imagine that there is no surer sign of advancing age than being prompted to buy a book that schools you on how to ward off attackers with the cane that you are assumed to be using.

In Victorian times, using a cane for self-defense wasn’t limited to the elderly. Many British gents carried walking sticks as part of their regular high-class ensemble, and if you’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories you’ll recall Holmes and Watson intentionally taking their “sticks” along on their adventures, so they could lay into any ruffians that might accost them as they rambled along on London’s foggy streets in search of clues. Alas, social affectations have changed, and healthy adults now typically don’t walk around with canes or walking sticks, ready to start thrashing away at any attackers.

Instead, these days canes and walking sticks seem to be limited to two categories of people: hikers who are out on a hike, and the elderly and infirm. You wouldn’t think that hikers in the wilderness would need to use Cane Fighting techniques against others they might encounter on the trails, although these days, I guess, you never know. Instead, the notion of using canes for self-defense seems to be reserved for people who actually need canes to help them stay upright as they are out and about. And the book I got the prompt about isn’t alone in this area–there is lots of information on the web about cane fighting. As the step-by-step illustration above about the “defensive two-handed jab” to an assailant’s chest indicates, there is even a “Cane Masters International Association” that has identified and catalogued specific cane fighting moves.

The problem with the idea of cane fighting is that it basically presupposes two things: the person using the cane probably didn’t need it in the first place, and therefore isn’t going to topple over while they employ the “defensive two-handed jab” or another quick-moving maneuver, and the assailant will be standing still while the tottering grandpa makes his big move. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions actually are. And why worry about a specific move if you can just start whaling away at any attacker and clouting them about the head and shoulders until they go away or are disabled by laughter at your feeble efforts?

We’ve actually got a cane or two that we’ve inherited, and keep them in an umbrella stand in our front hallway. Maybe it’s time to get them out, buy this book, and work on a little cane fu, just in case.