Gradatim Ferociter

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This past Saturday marked the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and it’s hard to resist the urge to still be depressed about it.  73 seconds after liftoff, the ship exploded, killing the seven astronauts including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian in space. Later analysis revealed the likely cause to be an O ring failure as a sealant due to unusual freezing temperatures before the launch. I’d like to think that the disaster led to new, safer ways to explore space or a determination to solve scientific problems in ways to benefit us all. But thirty years in, I’ve come to realize some of that is probably fantasy, and the reality is a mix of pessimism and pragmatism.

I remember exactly where I was: at the office on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, only six months into a job with a company I would eventually support for decades. In those “yuppy” days, we still wore suits and heels and spoke in hushed tones, as if every discussion were of utmost importance. In the middle of an intense debate over something on a spreadsheet, we noticed that everyone was suddenly going into the big conference room with the television, and on the screen was this odd blotch of smoke flowering outward. Whoever had been in the room first – to watch the launch initially – had to retell the story over and over as more people came out of their offices and cubicles to join the crowd. All you could see for several minutes was smoke blossoming further and NASA Houston mumbling something about “waiting to see,” until finally the news generated some kind of replay. Then, the announcers explained what had happened, and started replaying it over and over. We’re now used to that instant replay on a loop, but that was the first time I remember seeing it put to use. Continue reading “Gradatim Ferociter”

Not the Same Perfect Ten

Forty years ago, Bo Derek modeled a certain standard of beauty in the movie “10.” Svelte and tanned, she sported Caucasian cornrows and a thin, sculpted body below her blonde Northern European features. Sixty-five years ago, it was another blonde, Marilyn Monroe, who was the poster girl, though her figure was much larger and hourglass-shaped rather than willowy. A hundred years ago, it was the Gibson girl, though she was an artistic rendering rather than a real person; also hourglass shaped with a body exaggerated by a corset. These beauty ideals have all shared common features: they represent a look that is unattainable, reflecting either wealth, lucky genetics, or a figment of the imagination.

Consider the French Age of Enlightenment. In the 18th century, before Louis XVI’s head was lopped off, the aristocracy and the arts reigned supreme. French fashion is still splashed across hundreds of portraits in the average museum, displaying on white faces, giant hairstyles, and massive gowns overflowing with fabric. Those faces were painted to make them look unblemished since the average French face had scars and discolorations. Unfortunately, the huge amount of lead in the ceruse paint often created the very scars it was designed to hide. Eyebrows were also supposed to have a certain look – different from however they normally grew —  so they were shaved and mouse hair was glued on instead, in a more ideal place or just different from wherever eyebrows would normally grow. Beauty marks were added, even according to a certain code. Continue reading “Not the Same Perfect Ten”

Dr. King and the Universal Truth

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This is a week to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the history of nonviolent protest, and the impact of the civil rights movement on our national character. It also is a week where we look towards a fairly dramatic change of government; no better time to consider messages of resistance, urgency, and inspiration.

But I am having a little trouble finding the right frame to make my comments meaningful. Saying that Dr. King was a visionary leader whose words compel us to fight injustice is like saying a rose is beautiful or that cool water quenches thirst on a hot day. These things are known and so familiar as to almost be mundane.  Writing what should be an uplifting post has started to feel like telling people they should eat kale. As we all know, kale is not edible unless it’s deep-fried and covered in Cheetos dust. I would not want to have to cover the “I have a dream” speech in Cheetos dust.

If everyone likes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, does that mean I agree with the ideas of everyone who says so? Politicians from all sides of the spectrum have issued positive press releases lauding Dr. King. Does that mean I agree with all of them?  Or, if I say that Dr. King’s ideas are revolutionary because they apply to everyone fighting against injustice, does that mean I am minimizing the work he did to advance the destruction of racist institutions? I am worried about pandering; I am worried about offending.

Continue reading “Dr. King and the Universal Truth”

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