August 13, 2016

Overheated crow

It was very hot today.

Saw something I've never seen before. Walking across the parking lot, I saw a crow sitting on a signpost a handful of feet in front of my car.  Shoulders  drooped and wings hanging down, with its beak wide open. Not cawing or calling, just open like a prolonged gasp for air. I stood next to the car and watched it sitting there. Another car pulled into the space in front of mine, right next to it. A group of young women got out, then stood there chattering at each other and gathering their belongings out of the car.  The crow was too overheated to even take fright and fly off, it just sat there next to them, droop-winged and slack-beaked, while the girls chattered and walked away.  I had the empty plastic tray from a Starbucks snack combo in the car, so I tore the lid off of it and filled the bottom half with what was left of the water in my bottle. When I took a few steps toward the signpost to set the tray on the ground, the crow heaved itself off the sign and swooped up onto the limb of a tree next to the car (I always park in the shade if I can).  It sat up there looking down at me with its beak still in that open gasp. As I got into my car and drove away with the air conditioner cranked full blast, I hoped it understood what I'd left for it.

August 12, 2016

Icarus and ecstatic inspiration

How do you place a value on inspiration? 

On July 30th, Jack White had a party at the two locations of Third Man Records, in Nashville and Detroit, to celebrate the realization of... what?  An inspired dream?  A crazy idea? A frivolous lark?  What you call it depends upon your perspective, but a little over five years ago, the man got the idea in his head to play a record in space, and then he made it happen. That's not as easy as it sounds, what with the delicacy of turntable tonearm weight, turbulence, temperature fluctuations, the fragility of vinyl, and reduced gravity.  I'm not going to go into detail here as to how they made it work since it was described in great depth by Third Man Records and many news sources. And not just the usual music blog suspects-- My personal favorite was seeing it at Smithsonian, but it was also at CNN (with a great little video re-cap), Popular Mechanics, and Discover, along with a handful of techy sites like Space, ZME Science, techly, and this highly detailed one from Outside

No, what inspired me to write about the whole endeavor was the lone comment on the coverage at Vulture:  "There are children starving in this world. But hey. 162 retweets."  I started to respond defensively to that, thinking "Since when is it up to rock stars to feed all the starving children? In an ideal world, wouldn't our local, state, and national governments help to ensure there's food for all?", but then I thought about how I've leveled the same criticism at NASA and its space exploration program.  What is the point of space exploration? How can we think of colonizing Mars when we can't even feed all of the people on this planet? Shouldn't that be our first priority, and space exploration come after that?  

I don't know the answer to that. But it's obvious that humanity is compelled to explore. That's how we ended up spread all over this world. That's how we've mapped almost every centimeter of even the areas we don't inhabit. That's how we've discovered, and continue to discover, all of the species we share it with. So it's to be expected that we'd turn our curious minds to what's out there beyond this planet. And there are (or have been) those among us, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, who are able to blend their curiosity and compulsion to explore space with a deep concern for the welfare of people here on Earth.  


Presumably it was that video of excerpts from Carl Sagan's show Cosmos that sparked this idea of Jack's. In 2009, he not only released the audio of that video as a vinyl record on Third Man Records, he also joined the Planetary Society (note the pertinent quote at that link: "He said he's highly motivated to keep in touch, so we're very excited."). Jack's said many times that A Glorious Dawn is one of the releases he's most proud of, so of course it would be a continuous source of motivation to him, to spur the idea of having that exact record be the first actually played in space. He mentioned the project publicly once, in an interview with Buzz Aldrin in 2012, but then was quiet about it and seemingly busy with other things since then.  

But Jack is someone who makes things happen. In talking with Marc Maron, he described his younger self as "very go-getter..., always truckin' really fast" and that's obviously not changed. With Conan O'Brien, he talked about working hard, pushing yourself, cookin' and getting somewhere. Eddie Vedder put it very well when Pearl Jam recently played in the Blue Room of Third Man in Nashville, saying, “We all have ideas... But not only does he have ideas, he sees them through.” Having money obviously helps him to achieve things like playing a record in space but, really, it's more the people he surrounds himself with, people who are, to use his phrase, "cookin'". It seems he seeks out the right people and then creates an atmosphere of inspiration and curiosity in which everyone can work together to accomplish apparently pretty much any idea. It makes me intensely curious to know what sort of things he's dreamed up that he hasn't been able to achieve. In the case of this project, he drew in people from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Buzz Aldrin to Kevin Carrico, an old pal from Jack's early days on the music scene in Detroit who seems like a fascinating and inspiring person himself. There's a lesson in that.

As for myself, as a fan of not just Jack's music but his non-stop curiosity and compulsion to create, I've struggled with feelings that I'm not creative enough. How can I say I'm inspired by him if there's no result to show for that inspiration? I'm a tolerably decent writer and a somewhat good photographer, but that's where I feel my creativity ends. But one of the things I've learned about myself in the time I've been following Jack is that what turns me on isn't creating. It's exploring. Part of the excitement of all those shows of his I've been to has been going to new places. In some cities I haven't seen much more than a sidewalk in front of a theater, but I've still seen things (Did you know Omaha is full of animal sculptures?) and experienced things (sleeping with the homeless in San Francisco) that I wouldn't have if I'd not gone there. I've explored much of Nashville and its surrounding areas, and have now embarked with the same determination to thoroughly get to know Detroit. Beyond physical places, I've explored blues music and the history of this country that it's steeped in. A more recent and completely unexpected Third Man Records release exposed me to Greek folk music and taught me about the history of that culture. Hell, this musician even had me exploring science before this big event-- I'd read the works of Sagan and Hawking before, but I'd not heard of Nikola Tesla until Jack introduced me to him.

It's been impossible for me to be a fan of Jack's music and Third Man Records without being set on continuous multiple courses of physical and intellectual exploration. And if he has that effect on me, what effect might crazy/beautiful things like the Icarus launch have on other fans or, even more compellingly, on the children of his fans, kids who are young and impressionable and, hopefully, easily awed and motivated by seeing someone with Jack's cool factor geeking out over combining art and science? What ideas could they get from that? How might they be inspired to "cook"?  

Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers. Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn't been done before and to work towards its completion. And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.

What value do you place on that? Is the price of building a craft to play a record in the stratosphere too much, or just enough? Again, I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that it excites the hell out of me and makes me hope that Jack keeps on cookin' for a long time to come. 

At the beginning of this, I mentioned parties at Third Man to celebrate the playing of A Glorious Dawn in space. I went to the Detroit branch for the event, specifically so I could see the Icarus craft up close and to share the excitement of Jack's and his team's accomplishment with friends and fellow fans. Here's a taste (full album here)--  

Video courtesy of Yvette Wilkins

And, if you want the full experience, here's the complete stream of the Icarus launch and landing. If you've the time for it, it's beautifully meditative--