Friday, January 21, 2011

No Fly Zone Friday #7

Today's stops: Day by Day Cafe for breakfast and the New York Times. Kopplin's for the world's greatest cup of coffee. St. Anthony Main for "True Grit." The original Dunn Bros. on Grand and Snelling for an afternoon cap and reflection.

Today's theme starts with a question ... the same question that begins one of my favorite books of 2010, Denialism, by New Yorker science writer, Michael Specter:


If you had a choice to live in the past or in the future, which would you choose?

My guess is that most people would choose the past, and indeed, that would be my initial leaning. I would probably choose the so-called "Roaring '20s" in America, but who wouldn't be tempted by any number of other eras in other places?

A great deal of my recent reading is making me think otherwise, however. I just finished a biography of Albert Einstein, which reminds one of the true Nazi threat, not to mention the horrors of a real world war. "True Grit" could have been edgier than it was in placing you amid the hardships of the American frontier, but it does offer enough to make you think twice about romanticizing it. But most important, Bill Bryson's new book, At Home: a Short History of Private Life, which I've been playing in the car for weeks, pretty much terrifies you into loving the present.

At Home is an ingenious idea (though not executed as cleanly as it sounds). Bryson uses the home as a device in which to talk about modern human history. For example, in the living room, you learn about the advent and evolution of furniture. In the dining room, you get a brief history of the spice trade in answer to the question, "Why, of all spices, did we settle on salt and pepper?" I'm currently in the bathroom (in the book, that is), and of the history this room encapsulates (the former occupation of "night soil" removal, the practice of Middle Ages Christians to never bathe for fear that open pores led to disease), you do not want to know.

Of the present, we always have a certain amount of disdain. We are convinced that in the past, people were nicer and food was more wholesome. There was no global warming or terrorist threat. No incessant political bickering or 24-hour news cycle. No Snookie, no spoiled kids. Everything was simpler. We weren’t pulled in a million directions. Our attention spans and our governments suffered no deficits. People were better educated, more personal, more decent. Music was better. Art made sense. People had some measure of job security, and birds didn't arbitrarily fall from the sky.

Bryson's book brings things into sharper perspective. Of the environment, imagine yourself being sickened in your sleep every night by the paint or wallpaper in your bedroom (and not realizing it). Imagine living in London and seeing human waste and animal carcasses clogging the Thames. Of "things being simpler," imagine the state of your teeth, or the procedure that might be used to address breast cancer. Of decency, don't delude yourself. You might find the woman blocking your way in the Target aisle annoying, but nobody is challenging you to a duel. Intelligence? People lived with open fires in their homes and got rained on (due to the necessarily slatted nature of roofs) for millennia before someone finally came up with the concept of a chimney. And as for kids being nicer and less spoiled, well, that might be true, but back in the era you might admire, you wouldn't have been surprised to see half of your children die of disease.

Speaking as a person who can't even enjoy lying in the hammock in summer and staring up into clear blue sky, because he can't stop thinking about all the gasses in the atmosphere toasting the planet ... and wondering if his own son will see food shortages and real political chaos in his lifetime ... this actually eases my mind. As Bryson points out, basic concepts like "privacy" and "comfort" (not to mention "dental care" and "antibiotics") are very, very new. Fittingly, this gives me great comfort. Perhaps The Beatles were right, "It's Getting Better All the Time (It Can't Get No Worse)." I'll choose the future, please.

Then again, to have actually seen The Beatles in the Cavern Club ... damn.


Einstein's Accidental Theory of Everything

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds. It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.

I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

- Albert Einstein