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April 29, 2009

Creatures of Change

Over the course of the last twenty years I have lived in five cities (on both coasts and in the midwest) and in twelve different homes, so by now I've figured out that when you relocate your life, a particular type of sustained energy is required in order to get beyond the grief and stress of change.
    
The aim is to thrive in new soil without forgoing your own history, whatever the forces that brought you there. And while this process of adaption has an obvious impact on survival, it also has a very real impact on creativity, a point brought vividly home to me recently by the words of scientist Dr. Margaret Race and the work of artist Rene Yung.
    
Dr. Race's work for NASA and for the SETI Institute keeps her engaged in researching just how biological the universe actually is, and working on the development of a model environmental impact study pertinent to interplanetary exploration. She gave a public talk on Earth Day about the possibilities of and challenges associated with biological adaptation in our universe...and also gleefully reminded her audience that we are all just walking bags of microbes.
    
Dr. Race explained that what first peaked her interest in studying adaptation was the ubiquitous mud snail that clogs the marshes and salt flats around San Francisco. What she found fascinating was that these Ilyanassa obsoleta were actually imports from the eastern United States; they were unintentionally transplanted 130 years ago (attached to the oysters that were shipped west via the Transcontinental Railroad) from their native environs.
    
The same day I heard Dr. Race's talk, I saw artist Rene Yung's installation  "...anges and Disappearances" for the first time. This is an interactive work about a seminal story in Chinese-American history that has faded with time and change -- the story of the immigrant laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad and what they suffered through (and adapted to) as sub-citizens in 1860's California.
    
And today I read a review of a new book on the life and impact of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the billionaire master and commander of that very same Transcontinental Railroad...a book written by T.J. Stiles, an historian who graduated from Carleton College one year ahead of my own class.
    
Aside from the weird coincidences of interconnection I just recounted (and these things do happen to me often), what I am appreciating at the moment is the reminder, through the work and art of others, that adaptation is actually interconnection, not an individuated event.
    
As a young entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt made a killing trading oysters on the eastern seaboard. As a railroad magnate, he created a demand for them among the wealthy on the west coast and built a system (using Chinese laborers) to deliver these indulgences, among many other things, to the leisured class. The creation of the railroad introduced thousands of Chinese to post-Civil War America, and their descendants keep that history alive through their own creative work. And Vanderbilt's project also introduced eastern mud snails to a new world, snails that were the inspiration for a scientist to think about what may be on or under the surfaces of other worlds beyond the beyond.
    
My own adaptations have been minimal in comparison, and I find that the tether to my own history remains, despite my changes of locale. It is the work that changes most. I cannot see things the same once I shift my position on the planet, so things come out on the canvas differently. The light is different, of course, but truly its the thoughts that adapt and fuel a new direction of form. Because different things are true, with age and experience and distance, and true things seem to get sharper in the mind.
    
Last week my husband and I went to a star watching party out on a peak nearby, and through the generosity of the astronomers gathered (and their very very cool telescopes), we got to see globular clusters, and Mercury, and the most amazing view of Saturn. I could see with my own eyes three of the moons around Saturn, moons I have painted about in the past.
    
And I could see the rings, and even the shadow of the rings against the planet's surface. The telescopes we looked through were showing us objects across distances I cannot fathom and the light of an ancient time, the same things that peaked Galileo's interest when he fiddled with a looking glass and built his own telescope 400 years ago.
    
But what we can see now is thousands of times clearer, sharper, more detailed. And what I could see were the waving tones of blue and orange in the atmosphere between us and Mercury, and the pale weird yellow of Saturn, and the cool crystal blue, smudged with grey dust, of a group of stars clustered on the edge of our galaxy. Things I'd never have seen if I had not packed up a life and moved 900 miles south last summer, here, to my fifth city and my twelfth home.

April 21, 2009

The Proper Use of Artifice

Some lucky people are blissfully unburdened by cognitive dissonance, that awful mental cramping that results from recognizing that things you really want to be true are simply not. Many of those people have been fomenting about taxation lately. And some have been talking about the positive outcomes of torture.
     
These are people who are willingly lying to themselves about themselves and their motivations. Because it is reassuring to believe a set of ideas about oneself, firm and unchanging, and to believe that because of this unwavering stance, one is always on the side of the angels. Who would like to admit otherwise? Its excruciating, truly, to realize that what you believe may be false, and worse -- that through acting on that belief, its quite possible you have done damage to others.
         
A number of protesters at the recent tax day rallies melded racist language with a libertarian political view (and a really freaky intellectual blankness about American history) to promote the argument that they do not have a say in their government. No rational response to this works. And not one of them would imagine for an instant that their beliefs are damaging in some way to others. But in my view, being immune to cognitive dissonance is in itself damaging to others, as it seems to signal a lack of conscience. 
     
But why would someone's lack of a conscience be harmful to anyone else? Ask the torturers. Or for that matter, ask the true believer terrorists. Or ask the racists at the tax day rallies, to whom our new African American Commander in Chief is giving...a tax break.