Archive for the 'Mortality' Category



Half a Century

The object at hand is a memento of my first breath, 600 months ago. Shown here are a few distinctive items from a pile my mother had collected and stashed away, and I discovered after her death.

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I was born on the day of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Back then there were no weather satellites, no weather radar, no mobile phones, nor email. “Cable” meant sending a telegram, a less expensive and more reliable alternative than a long distance phone call. A letter cost 4¢ by ground, and air mail was extra. Here are congratulations from Germany, Israel and New York. And I have no idea if this birth certificate would be official enough to satisfy doubters.

The reverse of the Pet Milk stork card is revealing of the era when men were birthday bystanders:

“Congratulations, Dad!
To see your baby, please present this souvenir card at the nursery window.
Hold card against window so nursery nurse can see the name.
Please return card to mother’s bedside.”

But my purpose in this post is to observe some things of interest in the past half century.

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I was too young to notice when the first man went into space, but I stayed up late to watch the live broadcast of Armstrong stepping down from the Lunar Module. Billionaires can now buy a ride into space, but few bother. America has apparently passed the baton to Europe, Japan, and China as the rulers of space.

I remember fallout drills, and actually saw “Duck and Cover” in school. Everyone worried about radiation on a daily basis, but hadn’t heard of cholesterol. Guess which one kills 1,000 times as many people as the other?

One of my teachers was so used to the original Pledge of Allegiance that she would occasionally leave out the “Under God” that had recently been inserted in the middle of “One Nation Indivisible” when we did the daily ritual. She also showed us the proper way to stand from when she was in school. See The Changing Recipe of Pleasure Lesion Stew for a surprising picture.

In the last five decades organ transplants went from science fiction, to an abomination against God that should be outlawed, to a rare and expensive major surgery, to a fairly common procedure that anyone might expect. Drivers licenses (at least in my state) have a donor form. Mine is signed. Is yours?

As I grew up, vacuum tubes gave way to transistors and then integrated circuits. Several technological inventions in the last half century have changed society. I mean, really altered the ways in which people interact.

  • The Pill made it possible for women to have a career and social life without either a husband or celibacy, so now women are almost half of the workforce. It also changed the point of dating. Girls no longer consider finding a husband their only goal, and mostly not their primary one.
  • The rapidly evolving WWWeb allows people to  interact in many new ways for both business and social purposes. One minor sign: Video phones and teleconferencing are no longer solely toys of millionaires and super-geeks. It is now fairly common for people to work from home.
  • Cell phones mean that no one has to make social plans in advance, nor wait by a phone. The world is un-tethered! And you can’t get away from the office!
  • Between the web and cell phones, privacy is dying. This is inevitable. As new generations grow up with ubiquitous communication, everything they think and do is broadcast and stored. Much like after the Kinsey Reports, as everyone begins to notice how many others share their own private thoughts and behaviors, guilt will recede.
  • The web has also killed the publishing and copyright models of the 16th through 20th centuries, in much the same way that Gutenberg changed the previous setup. Music, text, and video is now cheaper to share than gum. There is still a crying need for editors and librarians, to polish and organize the flood of new and traditional media. This change is ongoing, and we still don’t know how it will settle out. But historians will mark its genesis in my lifetime.
  • Containerization (that was just taking hold in my childhood) now makes goods from the far side of the world price competitive with local products. “Imported” now rarely means rare or posh. And the improved communications infrastructure allows many jobs to be moved around the world to find cheaper labor. It is truly becoming a unified world economy.

Some things have not changed much during my life.

  • Personally owned motor cars are still the major influence in the planning of transportation and towns. Pubic transit infrastructure in most cities has declined as a result. But it shows signs of returning in the next half century as the cost of extracting fuel rises.
  • The price of a gallon of gas is still about half the cost of a movie ticket and about the same as a fast food meal. No change over the ten presidential administrations that I’ve experienced.
  • Men still wear pants, although now women also do, without undue notice.
  • People still mostly work 40 hour weeks, although now it takes two working adults to support most households.
  • People used to get their news from the newspaper with whose editorial slant they least disagreed. Now they get their news from the video and web columnists with whom they almost perfectly agree. Maybe this belongs in the “changed” section. Human nature hasn’t changed, but the media are much better positioned to pander to it.

So a half century gives me some personal perspective from which to view history and humanity. Or at least the illusion that I have it.

For Whom the Shutter Snaps

This post was inspired more by certain recent activities than by my grandfather’s camera itself. But first, the camera: This is the one that I first used to take pictures, around the age of 6. It was also the first camera that my mother learned to use in the early 1930’s. It was quite an effort for me to learn how to handle it, in spite of my mother’s patient tutelage.

The focus ring is calibrated in meters, the standard of measurement in all but three nations. But I was raised in one of those oddball nations, so had to be shown how to pace off meters. My tiny legs could barely span one, but I did learn to focus a camera by pacing before I could estimate by eye.

The external light meter was beyond me; I didn’t originally “get” how to adjust the f-stop and time based on a needle crossing half a dozen scales. But my mother patiently showed me that there really were only a few choices. Five speeds: Latch-open, hold-open, 1/25, 1/50, and 1/100.  The f-stop runs from 6.3 to 32. And keep in mind that film only went up to an ASA of about 100 when my maternal grandfather was using it. One had to hold quite still to get a clear shot in full sunlight.

When I was eight or nine I received a durable, cheap camera that used film cartridges. Then I got a “110” compact camera in the early 1970’s.  By the late 1970’s I switched to my first in a series of SLR’s. I went digital in 2001. But I last used my grandfather’s camera in 1980, just to develop such big film in my own darkroom. Currently I take over 7,000 shots a year, a few hundred of which I might share. Mostly online, as on FaceBook or my travel page.

But the impetus behind this post and my main point is, what’s the point? After each parent died, I took it upon myself to wade through pictures of them to create memorial service picture boards and websites (Joseph and Erika). You may have surmised above that my mother was the shutterbug. It was a periodic passion with her. Her darkroom days peaked in the 1950’s, and she finally donated her equipment to a school about 2 years before I seriously got into photography.

So I found boxes of disorganized pictures and partial albums and drawers and carousels of slides to wade through. Most of the pictures were of people I didn’t know, scenes I’d never seen, and other precious mementos without referent for anyone but the original taker. There was an abundance of baby pictures of my brother and me, but few of us siblings as we became individuals.

It was hard to find pictures of my parents doing anything characteristic. Not one shot of my mother cooking or gardening, or my father at the computer or reading. Most vacation pictures were of scenery or specific plants or mushrooms, with some rare shots containing family members. We all scoff at vacationers taking pictures of each other in front of Scenic Outlooks. But it occurs to me that this is the sort of thing I’d have liked to have, after my parents passed. My father climbing Ayers Rock or underground at CERN, or my mother in some ferny forest hunting mushrooms or among the redwoods. Even a snapshot of our family enjoying a typical Sunday brunch at home would be treasured at this point.

Pictures not taken: My father was a whiz with a slipstick and the Addiator. He smoked a pipe for a while, played the harmonica, recorder, guitar, and the pump organ. Before the war took his shoulder, he played the violin; I’d like see that. My mother literally sculpted many an artistic meal, and gardened literally like a pro. Yes, I am using “literally” literally. She climbed trees well into her 50’s, cut down other trees, dug deep flower beds, laid patios, knitted, wove chairs, and refinished furniture. There is not one picture of these activities since I was born.

So my suggestion to those of you who take pictures is, consider for whom the shutter snaps (or the capture encodes if you prefer). Plan for the people who may want to see you or yours in ordinary activities. One never knows what currently mundane thing may later be looked upon with nostalgia.

Dan, his camera by his side and his mustache in the breeze, at Dead Horse Point

Outta Sight

Until recently, I felt that my vision would remain ever reliable. I knew about presbyopia intellectually, but it didn’t feel like it could happen to me. For decades I inwardly laughed at people who complained about my small handwriting and screen fonts.

But one day I realized that I could no longer easily read the dates on pennies. A year or two later, I can barely read a paperback on my lap. Forget about small print on paperwork, like the ingredient lists on food packages. Sure, I easily passed my drivers license eye exam last month. But I can no longer see what’s right in front of my face.

Reading Glasses

So I’ve been collecting dollar store reading glasses. I have them in just about every room in the house. But these are a nuisance to carry out in the world. They are big and easily scratched. Even the “compact” kind are awkward. Either their carry containers are bulky, or their extra hinges prone to tangling.

Panini GlassesThen I found the Panini brand compact folding reading glasses. Self protecting and the size of a pen. Naturally, this convenient inventions cost eighteen times as much as any other pair I owned. But these I easily slip into a pocket and go.

So what happens to any product that I genuinely like? The same thing that happened to many companies whose stock I bought. A year later, they no longer exist! I tried finding a link to share with youse via Google, but every link was a dead end. No matching images, nor stores carry these marvels any more.

This object is now completely out of sight. Unavailable. Can’t lay my hands on another pair when my eyes get worse.

To Tell the Tooth

I am aging. Well, all of us lucky enough to be reading this are. But every once in a while, some object appears to remind us of the process. Here sits an example on the tray beside me in the dentist’s office.

Shells of goldThese two thin shells intricately crafted from a long lasting and organically inert alloy are now installed in the right rear of my bite. “Crowns” they royally proclaim these mundane objects to be.

I am finally old enough that the four sections of some of my molars no longer cohere well enough.  My dentist showed me the evidence on the x-rays and in the mirror. I needed an engineering solution to prevent catastrophic failure of original equipment that was built to last somewhat less then my current number of orbits around the sun.

So I submitted to having some perfectly good (or apparently adequate) tooth ground away to make room for these thin shells. These are expected to keep the rest of those two teeth intact for the next few decades.

But it’s like replacing a tire on the car: You know others will need it soon. At least I am putting my money where my mouth is.