Category Archives: Speculation

Thoughts on Immortality

kingsI received a copy of a trade magazine in the mail that I used to write a regular feature for as part of my last job. My feature was also always the cover story. The new issue included the latest of these regular features, now, of course, written by my successor. To read the magazine presents a seamless tradition. There was and is no byline on this feature. To the casual observer there has been no change at all. Life goes on within and without me. Holding a copy of this magazine in my hand led to some bittersweet reflection about the footprint that we leave in life.

I am one of those vain animals that has always longed to leave my mark upon the world – some tangible proof that I was here, that I existed. Perhaps it’s not just simple vanity or a purely self-centered self-interest. I have always been captured by history, and in particular art. Beginning with the evocative fossilized remains of the first human footprints to the air-brushed (yes, air-brushed – they would blow the pigment from their mouths over the back of their hands as they pressed them to the cave wall) outlines of human hands along with graceful renderings of animals in the Lascaux caves we leave our prints on the more durable materials that compose our world.

Pharaohs and Kings had their names and idealized images carved into monumental stone so that they would live eternally in the hearts and minds of those that followed, but even the humbler of our species created marks to trace their path by. If you observe closely the stones upon which ancient stone masons worked you can see the lines of their tools etched into the stone like you can see Van Gogh’s brushstrokes on canvas, even the bristles from his paintbrushes, more tangible even than the signature. Greek potters began the cult of personal identification by beginning to mark their wares with a signature much like earlier Ancient Egyptian stonemason crews also left their ‘team’ mark on the stones.

As we advance in time artists, scientists, philosophers, and more began to leave their names more indelibly than kings and priests. Eventually even more humble people make footnotes in the history books, the images, and the remains of our various civilizations. In my research of the American West I come across hundreds of such people, moments of their lives captured in birth certificates, newspaper reports, tintypes, and inscriptions in the family bible.

Our popular culture worships celebrity and notoriety, which is sort of the dark underbelly of the shining desire to leave a tangible traceable mark upon history; a trail that can lead from one moment in time to another and allow people to make connections between the past and the present and feel the wash of history flow through them as something real and relevant. Celebrity can be a vanishing thing; here one moment and gone the moment after.

My impulse to write or make art is inextricably tied up with my desire to one of the threads of the fabric of the world. It’s a desire for a tangible immortality that transcends time or fleeting fame. I was here. I existed. Perhaps it stems from doubt about the existence of an afterlife, or perhaps it’s just natural hubris, but when I look around me at my achievements past and present there is really only one way that I feel I have made a unique contribution to the world, and that is my community site Pan Historia.

However how indelible can a web site be? I know that I have touched hundreds of people, and that I have made a difference in some of their lives that will be remembered all of their lives, but how about the future? I believe this question can be asked of the whole of the internet. It’s very nature is ephemeral and ever changing. Who tomorrow will remember communities like Pan Historia or even MySpace or Facebook? Where are the graceful strong carved lines in stone? How can I rest assured of my immortality when in a the flip of a switch all that I have worked for is gone forever with one electronic wink? Achievements on the internet seem as brief and fragile as human life itself.

Proud as I am of my personal achievements I do feel like I am rushing headlong to the abyss, and I don’t know what is on the other side. Desperately I crave the book that I can cradle in my hand, put on my shelf, and know that it will be here after I am gone. Books burn, degrade, rot, or get recycled, but surely one such tome can survive the ravages of cruel time to carry my name long after I am gone? Some future person will happen upon it on a dusty shelf in an obscure second-hand bookstore, a throwback to a gentler slower past, and there will be my name, my words, and it will be as if I still live.

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A Trip Back

Driving to Work

Driving to Work

When I write historical fiction one of the biggest imaginative hurdles I have to overcome is to truly understand the nature of time as my characters experienced it. If you ever watched one of PBS’s reality series where it takes modern volunteers and sticks them in the past as in Colonial House you might get what I mean. I came to this thought, this morning, because of the contemplation of my own day.

Yesterday some technical issues reared their head with the server I maintain. After a mid-length call to my tech guru last night I realized that I had basically graduated from the ‘grasshopper’ stage and he was setting me an assignment: do it yourself. So upon rising this morning the first thing on my modern multitasking mind was how to fit a lesson in MySQL into my already full schedule. I work four days a week at the ‘job’ and then three days a week I work from home managing and participating (both the same thing really) in my community web site, hosted on my own server (thus the need for lessons in MySQL management).

This being one of my three days in my home office I needed to cram all my writing in (blog, book, collaborative), continue to clean up after the holiday festivities, get my laundry done, and generally make myself useful around the flat since the other half of the equation works outside the home for all seven days of the week. The phone will ring, Twitter will chirp, instant messages will fly back and forth at Pan Historia, music will be played from a small plastic disc inserted into a tray in a machine capable of tasks that people didn’t even imagine they would ever need to do one hundred years ago.

This is when I began to marvel at the quality of the day of one of my ancestors as little as one hundred years ago. Imagine I was that ancestor and my tastes were exactly the same. I would have to do my morning chores, probably at the crack of sparrow’s fart because oil or candles or even electricity would have been a finite resource and I needed all the free daylight I could get. My chores would include bathing which would either require cracking ice, hauling water, or heating water on the stove, or all of the above. Personal hygiene alone would take a good chunk of time, perhaps an hour if I was fastidious or it was a long haul to the well? If I was the one doing the laundry (say I was a bachelor) that would take a substantial amount of time. There is the beating, scrubbing on the washboard, and hanging on the line. In the winter I guess my house would be full of my shirts and shorts vying for space by the stove? Dishes, like washing the face, would require much hauling of water and heating of water. I suppose I could peel some spuds while that water heated up.

Are there animals to be fed? How about cooking? I guess I might have one of those big cast iron ranges and it would need to be fed wood or coal – same with the stove to heat the house. That would involve chopping and stacking and fetching from the woodshed or at the very least a visit to the coal shed with the scuttle to be filled. I’m still working on the chores here. I haven’t even gone to my day job yet or, even more interesting to me, sat down at my desk to write where I would take paper, costly and thick, from the drawer, get out the quill pen, dip it in the ink, and then laboriously compose my thoughts by written word in longhand.

Now it’s time to go to the mill or the general store or wherever it is I work. I might walk or ride depending on the distance and my income level. If I walk it could easily be an hour or so from my home. If I ride I first have to take care of the horse in the morning: feed, water, clean out the stall. Then I have to saddle up and even my ride will take some time. There are no five minute car trips. With the exception of my peeling potatoes while the water heats up there is no ‘multi-tasking’ in this world. The day begins early and each moment is filled up with tasks from profound to laborious to simple. Only the wealthy had true leisure time because even making the simplest meal was work. It seems to me that time must have both gone slower for the me of a hundred years ago and at the same time have been so filled with labor of the hands that it went by as fast as a winter day turns back to night. Imagine going to visit your relatives for Christmas and taking a month to do it because after traveling for a week or whatever you certainly didn’t want to just turn around again?

In 2008 my head is filled with too many little things so that my thoughts are like mayflies – destined to dance around in swirling and confusing storms for a short time and die. A hundred years ago my thoughts would have been like oaks, born of acorn, slowly maturing, and then a great spreading tree of ideas, all branching and of the same wood.