Thursday, June 21, 2012

'Living in the past'

For the second time in recent memory, a member of my family has concluded that I live in the past.  It is not a very pleasant feeling, I must say, to be accused of such.  And to make matters more difficult for me, I don’t quite understand what that even means.  
The most recent accusation came yesterday when my ex-wife (well, she used to be family) called to tell me she did not want to go out to lunch with me because she does not want to live in the past.  
Let me set this up a bit:  Another lifetime ago when she and I married, I got a job teaching junior high in a Dayton suburb.  She had not finished her post-high school education, so while I taught, she went to school.  Then, of course, came our babies, and her schooling was put on hold yet again.  
When we got our youngest into elementary school, college for mom was finally finished and she took a job teaching at a local Catholic school.  A few years later she found a better paying gig in Mad River, and just earlier this month, bless her heart, she finally had enough time in the classroom to retire with a monthly check from the State Teachers Retirement System.  
When it became clear a couple years ago that she was planning to retire, I’d ask her at family gatherings how many days she had left.  Sure enough, she could tell almost to the hour what remained.  We laughed a bit, and I joked that when she retired I’d take her to lunch.  I mean, for a guy who’s already been out for ten years, I figured it was the least I could do to both thank her for getting me through my years and to celebrate her own monumental accomplishment.  Besides, I’ve had so much fun at this point in my retired life, I wanted to help her get a good start on her own.  So when she invited me to her retirement party a couple weeks ago, I reminded her that I’d be in touch regarding that promised lunch. 
Then yesterday she called me to say she did not want to have lunch with me because she did not want to live in the past.  
This living in the past thing came up a couple years ago via my older daughter, the one, who I have to say, is most like her mother.  At the time there was some stuff I was feeling that I wanted to sort out with said daughter.  Yes, it was from the past, but I figured by talking things over, we’d enrich our present.  I had attempted this some years before, but it never really went anyplace.  
My older daughter’s response this most recent time was Everything is fine.  There’s nothing to talk about.  Dad, you’re living in the past.  So whatever it was I was dealing with was dismissed as water under the bridge and not worthy of consideration.  I wasn’t happy about that, but, after all, my daughter is an adult and can speak her mind.  I told her I’d never bring up my stuff again, and I haven’t.  These days my family issues are worked out through personal meditation and talks with a very supportive Cindy Lou.
So, it would seem, affirming a shared past is now considered a liability and, from my position, shameful.  After all, if a body can’t take another body to lunch, there must be something wrong with it.  
It is especially odd for me, too, because as a poet, writer, and history teacher, I rather enjoy reflecting on past events and interactions with people.  For me, this is the stuff of poems, short stories, blogs, books, and interesting after-dinner conversation.  Remembering the past is not living in the past, for heaven’s sake. 
One more thing I’ll mention:  In my heart of hearts, I see myself as a loyal person.  I don’t see a whole lot of past tense in friendship.  If we were friends, then we are friends.  
Indeed, divorce happens, but that doesn’t mean a former spouse is necessarily out of my life.  We have two lovely daughters, after all, and a handful of really great grandkids.  I figure we have a whole lot of today to talk about, especially with retirement still brand new on her horizon. 
It is obvious she doesn’t feel that way.  Too bad, too, because I figured we had some important things to share. 
But everybody’s an adult here.  I guess if folks want less of me than I’m willing to give, so it is.  It’s their loss, as far as I can figure.  Still stings, though.
Today’s Elder Idea:  The distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. 
Albert Einstein

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Venus & Professor Todd

I suspect if you are reading this blog, you are aware that I have been in the process of writing a book about Hog Island in Muscongus Bay, Maine, for some time now.  
Currently, the island -- just about an hour’s drive north of Portland -- is home to the Audubon Camp in Maine.  (The camp’s name has gone through a series of changes over the years, starting as the Audubon Nature Camp for Adult Leaders when it opened in 1936, through the Audubon Ecology Camp in Maine when I got there in 1981, to its current iteration.)  
The primary focus for my book project is Mabel Loomis Todd, the first editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, who in 1908, started the process of buying tracts of Hog Island to save its mature stands of spruce from being harvested for making wooden boxes.  
Theodore Roosevelt, who was the US President at the time, was promoting the newly-minted idea of conservation on a nationwide scale.  America must not waste her resources.  Use raw materials wisely.  Did Mrs. Todd save Hog Island’s primary growth because of Teddy Roosevelt?  As an educated woman and lover of Nature, she was most certainly aware of such developments.  I look forward to making some of those connections clear in my book.
Following her purchase of about three-quarters of the 330 acre island, the family created a summer camp on Hog where they spent many warm seasons when they weren’t traveling to other destinations.  It was there, in fact, in the fall of 1932, where a 75 year-old Mrs. Todd suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died.  
For all of the years I’ve told the island’s story and through all of the articles written about the place, Mrs. Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, get top billing.  Mabel may have saved the place from cutting, but it was Mrs. Bingham who sought out the Audubon Society and witnessed the formation of the Camp for Adult Leaders there.  Except for a few summers ever since, the camp has been teaching folks about birding, the sea, and the interactions of ecology.  Audubon will be at it again summer 2012.  [see:  Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine]
Today, however, I would like to turn attention away from the girls and onto Mrs. Todd’s husband, David Peck Todd.  Mr. Todd hardly gets a mention in island history, but it is clear when looking at the family’s camp on the west side of the island that there was a lot of testosterone expended to make the place as comfortable as it was.  We know David was responsible for ordering roofing & nails, lumber, and keeping the boats sea-worthy, because of assorted notes and receipts preserved in the family archive at Yale.  
And on this very day --  5 June 2012 -- David Peck Todd deserves a special mention in astronomical history. 
As you have most likely heard, a transit of Venus across the face of the sun takes place this evening, visible from across the United States, cloud cover permitting.  This event is special because it happens so rarely.  
As it turns out, Venus’s orbit around the sun is not on line with ours.  It’s orbit is tipped about 4 degrees different from Earth’s, so as a result, eyes on our planet can’t see Venus pass between Earth and the sun except for every hundred years or so.  If you miss seeing the event tonight, you won’t see it again on this planet until 2117.  
Last time the transit of Venus occurred, photography was barely 60 years old.  David Todd was working at the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC at the time and had a stellar track record observing eclipses of the moons of Jupiter.  His boss, renowned astronomer Simon Newcomb, liked David’s work and put him in charge of photographing the transit of Venus to take place on 6 December 1882. 

David Todd was a technical wonk.  He loved creating stuff.  He loved playing organ, too, and whet his mechanical chops on keeping those instruments up and running.  By late fall 1882, David was developing a thing for photography, as well.  [As an aside, transits of Venus come in pairs when they occur, separated by 8 years.  When the 1874 transit came along, David took copious notes and made sketches.  By 1882, he was ready to try his hand at photographing the event.] 
Story goes that David Peck Todd was the first person in astronomical history to succeed in photographing Venus’s transit across Sol from Earth’s perspective.  He traveled west to Mount Hamilton in California to accomplish his feat, where a solar photographic telescope was prepared for his use.  In all, Professor Todd took 147 “superb” exposures on glass negatives.  But as good as his work was, astronomy had turned to other techniques for determining the size of the solar system.  His transit negatives were stored in a mountain vault beneath the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton and remained largely unknown for over a century.  [For a piece on the animation of David Todd’s transit photos, see the July 2012 issue of Sky & Telescope:  David Todd's photos of the transit of Venus]
Hog Island is about some great stuff.  I feel blessed to have found it in my life.  Along with birds and sea critters and island habitats, though, it was the first place I ever saw moons at Jupiter -- one clear night through somebody’s birding scope.  Astronomy has a story to be told on Hog Island, too, right along with Audubon, Mabel Todd, and Emily Dickinson.
Today’s Elder Idea:  Earth, air, and water are always with us.  We touch them, handle them, ascertain their properties, and experiment upon their relations.  Plainly, in their study, laboratory courses are possible.  So, too, is a laboratory course in astronomy, without actually journeying to the heavenly bodies; for light comes from them in decipherable messages, and geometric truth provides the interpretation.  
David Peck Todd
from A New Astronomy (1897)
Venus triptych by David Peck Todd (1882).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Some Dayton history

So much has been going on lately, including some family travel south, that I have (once again) been remiss in writing much here at The Back Porch.  My apologies.  And if I have it figured right, this summer looks to be pretty distracting, too.  So it is with a full life, I suppose.  Thanks for stopping by.  
Friday, 1 June, is an interesting day in Dayton history.  
Following the city’s slow embrace of the Wright brothers’ accomplishments in flight, the local community staged a huge area-wide celebration in mid-June 1909.  During the centennial of flight festivities in 2003, the 1909 parade and celebration feting Orville and Wilbur was reproduced regularly at Dayton History’s Carillon Park.  Special angel-clad monuments were recreated to duplicate the ones set up on Main Street, downtown, the century prior.  From all accounts, 1909 Daytonians were mighty excited to celebrate their then world-renowned native sons. 
But just three years following that celebration, the Dayton community faced a painful reality:  Wilbur Wright, age 42, had succumbed to deadly typhoid fever.  It was on 1 June 1912 that Dayton came out to help put Wilbur to rest in the family burial plot in Woodland Cemetery.  Story has it that Dayton ground to a halt for part of that day.  Industry assembly lines stopped, telephone switchboards went unswitched, and twenty-five thousand locals lined the streets leading from First Presbyterian Church downtown to Woodland Cemetery.  Such a contrast, indeed, between this and the huge celebration held just three years prior.  
So on this 1 June, the centennial of Wilbur’s interment, Dayton gathered once again to celebrate her fallen native son.  Special guest for this year’s event was Ohio-born hero and flight/space icon, Neil Armstrong.  

Maybe a couple hundred people made it to Woodland yesterday for the commemoration.  Two fly-bys were scheduled, but due to rainy conditions and a low ceiling, neither the Wright B Flyer nor the WACO bi-planes (flying in missing-man formation) risked the trip.  Still, being there with Mr. Armstrong was powerful stuff. 
Unfortunately, the sound system set-up by the cemetery folk failed to amplify voices well enough.  Some speakers, too, including Mr. Armstrong, didn’t understand that their voices weren’t being heard.  By the time we could hear something of Mr. Armstrong’s remarks, he was into his second paragraph.  From what I felt at the time, his words sounded pretty poetic to me.  Wish I had a copy of what he said to share with you here today. 
Along with Neil Armstrong, Stephen Wright and his sister, Amanda, addressed those gathered.  They are grand-nephew and grand-niece of the unmarried, childless brothers.  Also speaking was a representative of United Theological Seminary, the Dayton establishment first headed by the Wright’s father, Bishop Milton Wright.  Thirty minutes into the commemoration, at 3:30, all stopped for a moment of silence.  Though we could not hear any from the cemetery, church bells around Dayton pealed in memory of the loss of Wilbur a century ago.
I’ve been to the Wright’s Woodland Cemetery plot lots of times, taking any number of visitors with me.  Yesterday I was glad to have son-in-law Bill Bryant, his son Alex, and my other grandboy, Noah, with me.  We shivered a bit and the boys were disappointed the flyovers were cancelled, but all of us were struck by the dignity of the event and the significance of how Wilbur and his brother changed the world forever.  We felt ourselves proud native sons of Dayton, too. 
It was first time the boys have seen Neil Armstrong in person.  Seeing the first man to set foot on the moon standing over the place where one of the guys who invented flight was buried was enough for this grandpa to think the day had gone just right. 
Today’s Elder Idea:  ‘A short life, full of consequence.  An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.’ 
Bishop Milton Wright
written in his diary the day of Wilbur’s death