Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mapping Antarctica

Scientists have produced the most detailed map yet of Antarctica.

This was a vast project, and I have some idea of the issues involved in stitching together 2-dimensional images of curved, mountainous 3-D terrain -- especially when the photos are mostly white-on-white. (Imagine the glare and the reflections and the shadow problems.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

When Baptists Have Bombs

A trunkful of napalm isn't evidence of terrorism if you're a white male ROTC member/religion major at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Pastorblog says, "It appears that this passionate young man was trying to protect the reputation and honor of Jerry Falwell." Nice to hear that a Hitler-obsessed kid is so, umm, thoughtful. Oh, and he does plan to apply to be reinstated to ROTC when his sentence is over.

"Mark David Uhl, 19, asked the court for leniency at Tuesday's sentencing, but that was rejected by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon." Two years is apparently a tough sentence. When Baptists have bombs, they are sentenced to less time in jail than that spent by the legally innocent people herded into Guantanamo as "enemy combatants" and "terrorists."

What did he plan to do with five bombs packed with nails? Possibly, as Max Blumenthal reports,
kill the family of itinerant Calvinist provocateur Fred Phelps (famous for their "Fag Troops" rallies outside soldiers' funerals). The Phelpses planned to protest Falwell's funeral, a bizarre stunt designed to highlight Falwell's somehow insufficiently draconian attitude towards homosexuals.

Falwell's "leniency" may be that he never, as far as I know, publicly advocated that we should be executed like rabid dogs. Otherwise he and Fred Phelps pretty much agreed on the idea that us queers are hell-bound sinners whose evil has attracted God's judgment on the USA.

However, Fred Phelps may not have been the only one at risk. In court Agent R. A. Anderson of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms testified that:
Uhl had told his relatives he would set off the bombs in the parking lot of a Mormon church, use them to kill cows, "or something to that effect." . . . Uhl had once participated in an attack on his former high school in Northern Virginia. He and several friends made a tear-gas-like bomb using Tabasco sauce and a heater from a military Meals Ready to Eat ration. They planned to throw it from the roof at prom-goers as a prank, Anderson said Uhl had told him, but got scared and instead tossed it into a ventilation shaft.

Uhl boasted "He'd saved a lot of people from losing their virginity that night."

Clearly a true American hero.

Whatever Uhl's purpose with his bombs of napalm and nails, this country is supposed to be ruled by laws that apply to all. The law is not supposed to discriminate between explosives wielded by atheists, Muslims, Baptists, and anybody else. The gender and skin color of the defendant are not supposed to matter, either, though you know and I know that they make a difference long before a lawbreaker ever becomes a defendant.

I know this kid doesn't think of himself as a terrorist but as a hero defending the helpless. That scares me; I have a bit of a Joan of Arc complex myself. He was bullied, according to his parents. I can sympathize with that, too. And he was reared in a country, culture, and religion that gave him, on the one hand, enormous privilege and an image of masculinity that has to cause horrible damage to anyone trapped in it. Likewise, very little help with dealing with emotional or psychological problems, because real men don't have those, and neither do good Christians.

I wish I could wrap this up with a neat platitude or aper├žu. What I have instead is sorrow and frustration at a problem that defies solution, and enough wisdom to know that napalm is not going to make anything better.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Call in the Night

This story has a happy ending. I don't want to scare you, although I was scared. Just to tell the story and talk about the feelings.

Late Friday night I got the phone call every adult dreads: Chest pains. Emergency room. No point in my coming; I may as well stay home and get some sleep if I could. Debbie would keep in touch. As soon as she knew anything, she'd let me know.

That's right: the one who might be having a heart attack wasn't my father, my grandfather, someone in the older generation or generations. It was my lover, born the same year I was born. Someone of my generation who is vigorous, healthy, muscular—a man in his prime. And this struck me profoundly.

When I was born, I had four grandparents and four great-grandparents living, as well as innumerable aunts and uncles two or three generations back. Now my great-grandparents are all dead. My 90-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimers, is the only grandparent left. Many of my great-aunts and great-uncles are gone. My father has been dead for nine years. I know about losing the older generations, the people who have always been here.

I even know about people dying too young: a college friend of mine murdered on the street at 23, Diane in a car accident at 22, Antony at 40 of congestive heart failure. I know about the tearing grief of losing someone whom you've known almost from the moment of conception, who had been breathing air a bare ten minutes when you first saw her, whom you've followed through every landmark from the first smiles and words to the engagement parties. I know about losing friends to chance or violence or lingering ill-health.

Somehow, to have my strong and healthy lover in the emergency room—that felt like a different kind of fear, potentially a different kind of loss. Oh God, do I have to learn all the different kinds?

He didn't die Friday night. He didn't even have a heart attack. But someday he will die; someday Michele will die; someday my sisters will die. That thought aches.

The thought of my own death is actually a comfort most of the time. I cherish that ultimate liberty of slipping away from the pain and misery of my life. My family has extraordinary tenacity, and most of us live long past the time when death would come as a relief. So the pneumonia, the asthma and bronchitis, even the tumor the size of a cantaloupe haven't frightened me about the future; they've made me miserable in the present. It's probably arrogance on my part.

But thinking about losing my generation is completely different for me than thinking about my own eventual death. My death represents my freedom. The deaths of my sisters, of my beloved Michele, of Alan, of my friends—those are deaths to dread, losses irretrievable.

Losing them is unthinkable, but someday, unless I die first, it will happen. One by one they'll all die, and I will. I clung to Michele this weekend, held fast to Alan Sunday night.

I'm not going to mope over the deaths that may happen today or in forty years. I'm going to live as well and love as hard as I can, because we don't get much time. I'm going to be kind, too, because a little brightness makes a difference.

This morning when I went to pick up my mail, the owner wasn't there. Neither was her elderly father, a kind Black man who was always sunny and thoughtful, who remembered to ask after my mother because she sent me packages sometimes. The substitute clerk had tears in her eyes. Friday night after he came home from work, the old man lay down and died in his sleep. An easy death; peaceful; the death he would have chosen, working hard until the last. But still so sad the clerk and I were both in tears.

Life is fragile. Love hard. Play hard. Be kind.

This story has a happy ending.

For now.