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I first traveled to Mars when I was 13 years old. I did it on board Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

The book lies somewhere in between a short story collection and an episodic novel, containing stories Bradbury originally published in the late 1940s in science fiction magazines. The stories were loosely woven together with a series of short, interstitial vignettes for publication in 1950.

The stories of the book are arranged in chronological order, starting in January 1999, with the blasting off of the first rocket to Mars.

In “The Watchers,” the mars colonists witness a nuclear war happening on Earth, and out of concern they decide to immediately return out of concern for their friends and families.

“The Silent Towns” takes place when almost everybody has left Mars, except Walter Gripp. He was a miner who lives in the mountains and didn’t hear of the departure. At first he likes being alone in the silent towns. He has money, food, clothes, even movies, but he quickly misses human companionship.

One night he hears a telephone ringing in someone’s home, and realizes that at least one other person is alive on Mars. He starts calling numbers in the Mars phone book (Bradbury did not see the end of phone books in his future). He does find the other caller, a woman, but it doesn’t work out as he had imagined.

In “The Long Years,” we have moved to 2026 and there are others still on mars. We meet Hathaway, a retired physician/archaeologist, who lives there with his wife and children. Their home is in the hills above a settlement abandoned when people returned to Earth at the beginning of the war there. When a rocket lands on Mars, it turns out to have Captain Wilder. He is puzzled by how old Hathaway is while his family seems so much younger.

The crew realizes that his “family” are actually androids created by Hathaway after the originals died years ago. After Hathaway has a fatal heart attack, it is decided to “kill” the robots before they leave. But the crew member with that task isn’t able to kill the very lifelike robot family. The ship departs and the android family continues on with its “meaningless” routines.

One of the odd stories in the book reminds me of the stories you would find in The Twilight Zone TV series. “Way in the Middle of the Air” first appeared in 1950 and takes place in a Southern town where all the Black people are planning to emigrate to Mars. You would think that in this racially-charged town (and story) the white people would be glad to see them go. But the whites, who had spent a good deal of their free time harassing the Blacks, end up wondering when the rockets leave what they will do now. The story with its rather questionable plot was removed from some of the later editions of the book.

Another 2026 story is “There Will Come Soft Rains” about a home in California, after the nuclear war has wiped out the population. The family that lived there is dead, but the automated smart home still functions. The house is the “protagonist” of the story.

The title of the story comes from a 1920 poem of the same name, “There Will Come Soft Rains (War Time)” by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

In the poem, nature survives after humanity is wiped out by war. Bradbury’s story takes a different view: that a nuclear war would destroy mankind and nature.

The final story, also set in the future of 2026, is “The Million-Year Picnic.” In this story, an Earth family has saved a rocket that would have used in the nuclear war and leaves Earth for Mars. The family picks a city to live in and call home, destroying the rocket so that they cannot return to Earth.

He tells his sons he will introduce them to the Martians. The Martians are seen in their own reflections. They are the Martians.

 

There are some serious and some pop philosophies that extol “living in the moment.”  It makes sense to live in the now. In a very unenlightened sense, you have no choice since that is where we are. But many people cannot easily get over their past. They cannot leave behind events or people. Is this harmful?

I have always liked collecting quotations.  Here are two about this – serious: “The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle; and pop: – “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today” – Will Rogers.

Eckhart Tolle has written about this in The Power of Now and says that the natural enemy to enlightenment is the mind. He feels that we are our own creator of pain and the cure is living fully in the present.

The past is important. It is clearly part of you and it is what formed the person we are in the now.  It shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, it can’t be forgotten, though we may want to forget parts of it.

But sometimes letting go of the past is necessary to move on with our life. Obviously, we cannot change the past, even if it has changed our present.

Can you be selective in when and how you access your past? Being a product of the past is not the same as being a prisoner of the past.

I think of some of this mental time traveling as harmless. I tend to still listen to the music of my youth. Serendipitously, I heard the song “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull yesterday which was recorded when I was in high school. Harmless nostalgia, right? Well, it does trouble me that I have almost no interest in new music. I was so involved in pop music at one time. That is gone. Is that bad?

But that is not as serious as a person who more generally finds it difficult to accept new experiences and are more likely to recreate past experiences in more important ways than music you listen to.

I found a series of articles online about this approach. In Psychology Today, I found both ideas about living in the past and also the idea that “No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.”

When living is the past goes beyond nostalgic time traveling, it is associated with the fear of making changes, complaining more about the current situation, and isolation.

You can find those who will say that those who don’t remember or learn from the past will be forced to repeat it. But sometimes those who focus on the past, unconsciously, end up repeating similar, and not positive, situations.

This living in the present approach can start to sound like a song from the movie Frozen that was so annoyingly popular a few years ago and became a meme for other kinds of letting go of your past.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go

Living in the past also nurtures regrets for things done or undone that cannot be changed.

In my most serious period of Buddhist studies, I fully embraced the now.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past;
If you are anxious, you are living in the future;
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
–  Lao Tzu

But I still found myself depressed and anxious in the present. A teacher would tell me that was because I was not really in the present.

Fears are normal. Phobias are not. When visiting the past becomes living in the past, there is cause for concern.

Still, living in the now is not easy. People who are depressed are often fearful of the future. Their negative and anxious expectations encourage them to go back and letting go of the past is very difficult.

It is hard to see some negative past experiences as ones that ultimately make us wiser or put us on a better path. And some negative experiences don’t do us any good. They hurt and scar us.

Finally, the most frightening form of this seems to me to be something a friend is still going through after the death of their child. They don’t feel they can control the present. And that means they certainly can’t have any power over their future. She sees this as not only her problem, but a problem that “all of us” are dealing with in the current state of “the world.”

Sorry – no solutions here. Just acknowledgement of something I am observing.

 

Back in the 1930s, Carl  Jung went on at length about his views on the Tarot, noting the late Medieval cards are “really the origin of our pack of cards, in which the red and the black symbolize the opposites, and the division of the four—clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts—also belongs to the individual symbolism.

It is said that Swiss psychologist Carl Jung discovered “the internal Tarot” of the human mind with his notion of archetypes. And it could be also argued that Tarot was already an underlying layer of the collective mind, which is where archetypes are printed —those fundamental images that constitute the psychic constellation of the human being.

The meaning of the tarot cards (like he meaning of rune stones) changes depending on whether the card is seen normally or reversed. There is a lot about opposites in tarot, runes and the I Ching.

There are 78 Tarot cards which are like the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. There are many possibilities in those relationships. This post is not meant to teach the intricacies of using the tarot cards, but you will find that there are many ways they are used. There are many “spreads” of the cards – dream spread, mandala spread, 10 cards, 3 cards.

I was never sure that Jung thought you could use the cards to predict the future. In fact, he said “We can predict the future when we know how the present moment evolved from the past.”  He viewed it, as I view it, as a way to examine your past and present in order to consider (rather than predict) the future.

A Tarot card or a hexagram plays into Jung’s “synchronicity” theories. Mary K. Greer’s tarot blog came up near the top of my tarot search results and she also has discussed Jung and how as psychological images these tarot symbols combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to interpretations that Jung even called “playful.” The Fool, The Tower, The Lovers and the Hanged Man and the others are archetypal ideas.

Before we get too deep into that territory, let me say that we can use this divination as part of what Jung would call “individuation.”

Individuation is the psychic process by which one becomes himself, indivisibly, uniquely, a monad, as an expression of uniqueness and self-sufficiency at microcosmic level. It is, in Jung’s terms, the realization of the Self.

For my previous post, I used the I Ching to answer my question about whether I should continue teaching this year. The hexagram  “answer” was not clear to me. I thought it only fair to ask the tarot cards the same question.

I did a one card pull and got The Fool card.

The Fool is a very powerful card in the Tarot deck, usually representing a new beginning. And a new beginning means an end.

I didn’t do a full spread where the card’s position would tell me what aspect of my life would be subject to change. The Fool portends important decisions ahead. Not always easy ones. Maybe an element of risk. for you. Approach the changes with optimism and care to gain the most positive outcome.

I read the card as telling me that I am entering a new phase of life. Is it good or bad? Not clear. I would need to do a spread with a future position.

 

The Fool can indicate foolishness, but it seems to be more optimistic and is usually interpreted as a “Yes” answer to your question.

Maybe the tarot answer is the answer I wanted. Maybe I willed it to be the card. Maybe it is a coincidence.

Maybe if I did the I Ching again, I would get a better result.

So I did the I Ching again. This time I got TUI. This is known as “joy”. It has the elements of Lake over Lake. It is a good hexagram to get as Tui indicates a period of success and prosperity is entering your life.

Isn’t that the answer I wanted?

I think I will let the summer end and when autumn arrives I will look to the runes and spirit animals and other divinations. I predict that there will be more changes and predictions in my future.

I went to a workshop recently on using the I ChingThe I Ching is also known as Classic of Changes or Book of Changes. It is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. There are more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretations. It is an influential text and it is read throughout the world. Besides its use for divining the future, it has provided inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art.

It is a complicated book to study. I had a copy from my college days that I had annotated with tips on how to the read the toss of coins and the resulting hexagrams. But that copy was loaned to a girlfriend many years ago and never returned. I bought a used copy from Amazon a few weeks before the workshop and tried to relearn what I had once known about using it.

I was intrigued by a series of Post-It notes that the previous owner had left inside the book. Reading those notes took me back to my earlier uses of the text.

The previous owner had written her questions on pages with the hexagrams she received.

“Hexagram 31  What is my true calling?
Hexagram 49  How can I regain my sparkle and preserve?
How can I go about enforcing myself to go in the right direction regarding work and happiness together?
Hexagram 47 In what ways can I go about healing myself that I have not yet covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?
How can I ensure that I will make the right decisions to go down the right path?”

Those are big questions.

Working with this 5,000-year-old Chinese book of wisdom, some people turn to workbooks that are designed to help novice truth-seekers find meaning.

But this is 2017 and so there is no need to have the Book-of-Changes and Chinese coins. You can ask your question online, click six virtual coins and get your hexagram. I just did that.

I asked about whether I should continue teaching this year, as opposed to fully retiring. My answer was Hexagram 27. Here is the virtual version of the answer or guidance. It is simplified but not simple.

Hexagram 27
Beneath the immobile Mountain the arousing Thunder stirs.
The Superior Person preserves his freedom under oppressive conditions by watching what comes out of his mouth, as well as what goes in.

Endure and good fortune will come.
Nurture others in need, as if you were feeding yourself.
Take care not to provide sustenance for those who feed off others.
Stay as high as possible on the food chain.

You are a conduit in this instance, able to provide the sustenance needed by others. Position yourself to nourish the truly needy and worthy. Avoid situations where you might be coerced into supporting the parasites and vermin who deprive your true charges.
Your own nourishment is an issue here, too.

Remember Lao Tzu’s three Great Treasures: Only the person possessed of Compassion, Modesty and Frugality can remain fit enough to stay free of desperation and keep control of the situation

That is very open to interpretation – as with a horoscope, runes or tarot cards. What is my answer? Not clear.

The I Ching was originally used for divination. But it is not simple prognostication. Any serious user will tell you that that you, as the diviner, cultivate an understanding of the world and the self. Without this understanding, the text is useless. That is why most version have the commentaries.

Tomorrow, the tarot cards…

The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.

That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.

You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.

These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.

How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.

“In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.”   – The Boston Globe

Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.

In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.

This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.

In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“Yes.”
“You will need to delete them.”

These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.

“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.

“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”

The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.

This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their  “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.

Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.

crash

The third plane crash’s wreckage on Salem Avenue in Elizabeth, 1952. via The Daily News

As I packed for a trip to Europe recently, my thoughts, and more so the thoughts of my wife, turned to airports, airplanes, bombs and terrorism. It is an unfortunate way to approach a trip, but almost inevitable today, especially if you are someone who only travels occasionally.

On my last domestic trip, it was the first time I saw at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey fully equipped soldiers with helmets, body armor and automatic rifles on patrol. Did it make me feel more secure? No, I felt more threatened because it was reminder of earlier tragic events.

My wife even wanted to do some non-travel things before we left concerning our grown-up children, accounts, our will and such “in the unlikely event” that something happens to us on our travels.

It is a contemporary reality that young and old alike need to consider and come to some terms with the natural and technological and social disasters that are a regular part of the news.  For my own children, the attack on the not-so-far-away Twin Towers on 9/11/01 will be an unfortunate but key event of their youth.

As teachers, my wife and I were profoundly affected by the shootings at Columbine and other schools which felt like such a real possibility in our own lives and those of our children. That came much too close to home in 2007 when my son’s class at Virginia Tech was part of the shootings that occurred there.

My son was luckily, or miraculously, not hurt that day. Different people take a different take on that. I have gone back and forth myself in my thinking about that day. He is a faithful Hokie alum and rarely talks about that day. His professor who was killed is a hero to me.

One of his classmates who was shot, Colin Goddard, has become very active in gun violence prevention issues. He joined the Brady Campaign and works as a Senior Policy Advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety. He  was the subject of a documentary named “Living for 32” that shows how easily anyone can obtain a firearm in the United States without a background check.

A year ago, I read a book that came to mind again when my wife used that phrase which is the book’s title.  In The Unlikely Event is a novel based on real incidents and is a kind of memoir by Judy Blume.

Blume sets the novel in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey and mostly in the winter of 1951-52, when three catastrophic plane crashes occurred in less than two months.

Her protagonist, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown in 1987  to attend a commemoration.

The first plane that crashed barely missed exploding into a junior high school. The second crash was at an all-girls’ high school. The third crash was at an orphanage. It seemed like Fate or some power had targeted children.

The events forced the closure of Newark Airport for some months.

Miri was fifteen and before these crashes life was more about being in love for the first time and Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” and getting Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and family and friends.

Before that winter, it was a time was when airline travel was new and exciting. Everyone dreamed of going somewhere by plane. Being a stewardess was a glamorous job that showed up in novels, movies, TV and Playboy cartoons.

Of course, it was also a time of atomic-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threats and Civil Defense drills in schools, so the world could be seen through rose-colored or dark gray glasses depending on the day.

A succession of airplanes falling mysteriously from the sky would cause all kinds of rumors today, just as it did then.

Blume mixes in all of this uncertainty about life in a variety of ways. One day a woman shows up on the Ammermans’ doorstep, insisting Miri is her niece. She had seen a resemblance to her brother in a photo of the girl shown to her by a friend. Miri’s mother raised her daughter on her own and had refused to share any details about her father.

She falls in love with a boy from an orphanage in town. He’s a great guy and becomes a hero after he rescues survivors from the third plane crash. Is he her future? Can we contemplate a future in such an uncertain world when unlikely events seem to happen?

Judy Blume spent her childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, making up stories inside her head and eventually writing them down as an adult and becoming a very successful author.

I grew up in the same part of New Jersey fifteen years later than Judy Blume, but a lot of her stories feel like my own childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  She is better known for her young adult novels but has written three novels for adults and sold 80+ million copies of her books.

Three planes crash in a small town in New Jersey over the course of just two short months are unlikely events, but it happened. The attacks on the Twin Towers just across the river from that NJ town on 9/11 was also an unlikely event, but it happened.

In its time, those plane crashes were inexplicable. Communists? Martians? God? So many tragedies today – earthquakes, bombings – have an “explanation” but still seem inexplicable. The “why” of these events never seems to be fully answered.

Is Blume warning us? No, I think she wants us not be afraid to get on a plane, or take risks in life. Of course we should make plans and be cautious, but she reminds us that life is made up of unlikely events and that, fortunately, they “aren’t all bad. There are good ones, too.”

 

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