Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Things In Life Just Cannot Be "Googled"

“Not all those who wander are lost.”              --J.R.R. Tolkien

Google: is there any thing or any one or any place that cannot be found by this company’s ubiquitous search engine services?  Probably not.  At least not anymore.  In the mere fifteen years since this company was founded by two Stanford University graduate students, Google has become the go to source for any and all of our information needs. 

Need a video, want to track down the final episode of “Gilligan’s Island” or a 1936 speech by Franklin Roosevelt or the latest viral feed from the civil war in Syria? It’s there on YouTube.  Need to find your way in the world? Use Google Earth which has mapped much of the United States and lots of the world using millions of satellite and street level images.  Wondering how fast a cheetah can run or how to make an apple pie or need the exact words to the Constitution? Type it in the search box and voila, pay dirt, all in about a hundredth of a second. 

Google is now so widely used it has become a verb unto itself, “to google”, meaning to seek and search.  I even read one “fact” on a tech blog, courtesy of a Google search, which claims that in the United States 57 percent of children now say “Google” as their first word.  True? Maybe.  But hey I googled it. That makes it right, right?

A whole generation of students has never known a world without the luxury of Google.  No longer confined to the never ending stacks of a library with noses buried in the “The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature”, carefully thumbing through 3 by 5 index cards in a card catalog, now all they need to write a paper or deliver a speech or peruse an old book digitally scanned onto the Internet is…Google.  We use Google to virtually travel and virtually explore and understand the world, even if that journey is not really real, instead confined to the borders of a screen. 

When it comes to finding: finding our way, finding out, finding an answer, finding anything Google rules. Google rocks.  Google is it, right? Google is even developing a set of eyeglasses (Google goggles) which when worn by the user will theoretically allow us to walk in the physical world while viewing it all through a digital overlay from those specs.  “Look” at a restaurant and the goggles will call up a menu to peruse, reviews to read, and even a full color photo picture of the main course.

But here’s a confession, one which might reveal me a doddering old dinosaur of a man in this scintillatingly speedy high tech world where to “search” now means to tap away on a keyboard.  I also like to “search” out in the real world sometimes without any digital assistance.  No voice activated Sirri to guide my way, no GPS to save me from getting lost, no indexed search engine results to spell it all out. 

I like to go to a bookstore and wander the aisles, pick up a book, flip through its pages, get lost in its words which are printed on real paper. I like to feel its heft, its weight.  I like to go on long car trips and pull off on a mysterious highway exit and then park on a quiet Main Street and then walk, looking in the windows of antique stores and junk emporiums, then go within and get lost in the piles of potential treasure.  I like to check out a new restaurant in town without any advance warning or online reviews and sit down and pick up a menu and order something strange or odd or unknown and then tumble down into the sweet taste of discovering something for the first time.  I like to hike on a hidden forest trail or a sandy blue sky beach and not clutch a smart phone in my hand, expectantly, desperately awaiting the next text message or voicemail or update. I like to watch a movie on a big screen in an actual theater then get taken up and into a celluloid fantasy while munching greasy popcorn and getting lost in that physical space, that place, beyond the confines of my living room TV or laptop computer.

All technological leaps and revolutions, like a Google, like the I-Pad, like smart phones, offer new ways of living in the world but also sacrifice old ways of living in the world. We gain something when we adopt a new device but we lose something too.  When humans switched from horses to cars we lost the gift of experiencing the world at ten miles per hour and no longer saw our surroundings in the same way.  When we adopted the telephone we lost the chance to visit face to face with another, over a coffee, over the fence.  When we embraced email and text messages we lost the art of letter writing, of putting pen to paper with real thought, the anticipation of a card or note arriving in the mailbox. 

Technology is always a zero sum game. Google has made humans less courageous in a way, less curious, less likely to wander with no apparent destination in mind, less willing to seek answers without an assumed place to find that information.  By gathering all the information for us, Google can potentially take away the gift of getting lost in the world, forced to work at finding information or making a connection or stumbling upon a discovery. Google potentially takes the surprise out of the human impulse to explore and in the process of journeying, to discover something wholly unexpected along the way.

No I’m not going to give up Google.  I like it. It helps me to live.  But still there is something wondrous and joyful about wandering and just getting lost sometimes. That sensation, that thrill, that serendipitous epiphany?

You just can’t Google it.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

The End of an Era

Era (noun) 1.a period of time marked by distinctive character, events, people, etc.
                    --Random House Dictionary

ERA (noun) 1. Total number of earned runs allowed by a baseball pitcher, divided by total innings pitched, multiplied by nine. For example if Tim Wakefield pitched nine innings and gave up one run his ERA would be 1.0              

Seventeen years: that’s a long time, relatively speaking.  It’s almost a quarter of the average lifespan of an American man, 76 years.  Seventeen years takes a person all the way from the womb to senior year of high school. In seventeen years the average American will hold three different jobs and change her address three times.  Seventeen years equals 884 weeks or 6,205 days.  Alot can happen, change, transform, shift, and go away in that span of time. 

Seventeen years ago, 1995, feels like a lifetime ago, another era.  Bill Clinton in the White House. The Internet just an infant, America Online the dominant player.  When we connected then we did so by a phone line with beeps and clicks and chirps. Remember? A cell phone was the size of a brick and only for the rich.  9/11 was a distant nightmare.  And in April of that year, a young athlete named Tim Wakefield signed to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. He was 28, an almost washed up knuckleball pitcher, released by his last team, and hoping for one final shot at the big leagues.

Wakefield stuck with the Sox, took the mound for 3,006 innings, made 430 starts, won 200 games and played longer for the team than any other players, except Carl Yastrzemski and Dwight Evans.  The year Wakefield donned the red and white uniform the Sox were perpetual also rans, sad sacks who hadn’t won a World Series in seventy seven years. They always found a way to lose and lose very badly and often played before a sparsely filled Fenway Park.  When Wakefield retired last week he left a team which won two world championships in his era, slayed the once mighty Yankees and became one of the dominant teams in major league sports, selling out Fenway Park an amazing 631 times in a row and counting.

His departure represents the end of an era, the placing of a final “period” on a specific length of time.  Yes it was only baseball and all Wakefield finally did was toss a little white five ounce ball ninety feet. He played catch for a living. 

Yet he stayed while others left.  He played while others moved on.  He showed up year after year after year and many of us fans marked the passage of time in our lives by Wakefield’s longevity, by trusting that come Opening Day on a chilly April afternoon he would just be there, number 49, ready to take the ball and play the game of baseball and life again.  It was spring again.  It came back.

It’s rare to be able to mark our lives by such trustworthy symbols of tenacity and faithfulness. So many things and people and traditions and institutions quickly come and go in life, one moment on the stage, the next departed, gone.  As our world has sped up, as the new seems to continually push away the old, life can feel shaky and undependable. 

But when we are blessed by God we remember and are grateful for that which sticks around and is trustworthy, especially through all the changes.  A God who has seen us through the joy and sorrow, fear and faith.  A house of worship where we married and saw our kids welcomed, a sacred place which has given us sanctuary for so long.  A spouse who stands by our side after so many years of love and loss.  A team who stole our hearts as kids and whom we still adore, summer after summer after summer.

So good job Tim. Well done.  You didn’t just pitch for the Red Sox.  You marked a special time and era in the life of a team, a city and an entire region.  You will be missed.  But thank God, that even in 2012, some things last and some people stay. Some ideals are durable and strong and true.  Some hopes and dreams can be trusted, through all the years and all the eras.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whatever Happened to Winter?

Season (noun) 1. one of the four periods of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter), beginning astronomically at an equinox or solstice 2. characterized by particular conditions of weather, temperature   --Random House Dictionary

2011-12…the year of no winter…the winter that wasn’t…wimpy winter…Oh no, no snow! Any of these catchphrases might do for capturing the strangest of seasons New Englanders have seen in a long time.  A winter that never showed up.  A winter in name only. A winter that came in like a kitten and now plays likes a puppy dog, gentle and nippy, but no real growl. A winter with little snow, few days of sharp and clear cold and too many weird temperature swings mostly up, into the forties, fifties, and even sixties. 

So the long red underwear and itchy caps and soft fleece mittens I always break out come November sit unused by the front door. The snow shovel on the porch is covered in cob webs right next to the bag of ice-melt never torn open.  My favorite heavy blue wool winter coat, which weighs in at twenty pounds, hangs in the closet, an old friend I’ve yet to lean upon this season. 

The weather numbers confirm the oddness of this winter.  The Boston area has seen just one third of the snow and precipitation it normally receives. The “worst” snowstorm? Try last Halloween—what was that about?  And cold?  Well not much, if any.  It’s the fourth warmest January on record for the lower 48 United States, with an average temperature of 36.3 degrees. It’s so balmy that cherry trees have started to blossom in Washington, D.C.  Locally some of my neighbors have seen green shoots pushing up through the soil—in February?  A friend who taps his maple trees for syrup reports the sap started running two weeks ago—almost a month early.

It might feel less wacky if last winter hadn’t been so brutal and cold and snowy.  Remember this string of storms? Dec 26-27, 18 inches; January 12, 16 inches, the 18th, 4 inches, the 26-27th, 12 inches and so on.  By the time we got to April 2011 we’d recorded 85 inches of snow, the third whitest winter on record.  Global warming folks see these wild swings of weather as proof our planet is heating up.  Anti-global warming folks protest. Weathermen explain it’s an out of synch Arctic oscillation. But forget the science. I’m bereft—no drifts. 

What’s lost this year is the gift of a real winter season, a season, a clear and precise and specifically delineated time, with a beginning, middle and an end.  Just by walking outside we are supposed to know exactly when we are in the year and what time it is.  Not this year.  The calendar is cuckoo.

Though not a big winter fan I miss its clarity of atmosphere, its frigid uniqueness. The crunch of snow underfoot quietly echoing on a frosty winter night.  The sharpness of an indigo black night sky, stars twinkling in the dome above.  The reassuring click of the furnace as it kicks on. The wonder and grace of postponing the everyday when a blizzard blows in and envelops the world in a sacred hush.  And then after winter, the joy of spring finally, birds chirping, icicles melting, all made sweeter by having survived winter’s punch. We won’t have that lovely liberation next month. I’m forlorn for just a few flakes.

Seasons, distinct seasons, are like Mother Nature’s clock.  I live in and love New England because here we do have actual seasons, not like in California where it never rains or in Florida where clouds are wispy and quickly blow away or in Arizona where the only forecast is hot or hotter or hottest.  

Seasons here remind us of the miracle of Creation, the inexorable and dependable turning of the earth.  Seasons teach us that although we live on the earth we can never ever tame it or control it or box up its wild ways and weather.  Seasons are God’s gift to us, four natural postcards from the Divine, each which features a colorful brushstroke from the Great Artist’s palette: wonderful winter white, gorgeous spring green, shiny summer yellow and burnished autumnal brown.

There are only thirty-nine days to go until spring, March 20th.  The Red Sox equipment truck left for Florida last week.  The Easter lilies are almost full grown in the greenhouse, just waiting for the resurrection of a new season.  I’m excited and yet, it just doesn’t feel right somehow.  

Whatever happened to winter?


Monday, February 6, 2012

Loss Happens But Defeat is Optional

“Victory has a thousands fathers but defeat is an orphan.”                     --John F. Kennedy

Yes, I would have rather seen my team win. Let’s make that very clear. I would have rather jumped up off the couch at the end of the Super Bowl as a last moment Patriots’ drive pulled off another miracle. Would have rather cheered until I was hoarse when a receiver made an impossibly difficult catch to seal the victory.  Would have rather watched with glee as the Patriots hoisted another championship trophy in a snowstorm of red, white and blue confetti.

But that didn’t happen.  Last Sunday night, when the Pats lost in an angst filled, back and forth, heart breaking thriller of a game, there was the mightiest of collective groans around New England.  Sighs.  Head shaking.  Hats pulled over faces in grim acceptance.  Even a few tears from diehard fans. 

At the Super Bowl party I attended a middle school youth I watched the game with was so crushed by the loss that he dissolved into tears in his mother’s arms, inconsolable.  This was his first sports fan heartbreak, maybe even his first significant life defeat. The first time he knew what it is like to really wish for something dear or hope for something precious or work for something significant or strive for something desired and then to lose.  To be vanquished in spite of your best effort, best energy, best prayers even.  The game is over and we are on the wrong end of the score.   

That’s just the truth about life, whether on a sports field or in any meaningful human endeavor.  In order for someone to win, another has to lose.  If someone is picked, then another is passed over.  The line between tears and sorrow and joy and laughter is a fine one.  Tried for that great job but never got a second interview.  Pursued a love and had my heart broken.  Submitted a work of art yet never made it past the judges.  Trained for months but came in second. 

Loss just is, so how do we as humans respond to the inevitability of failure? Perhaps that’s the most important question to consider, and not just in the wake of the loss of a mere football game, but also for all the losses which make up our existence. Loss is just a given.  If you care enough deeply about an idea, if you are blessed by God to find something or someone to be passionate about, if you try your best and have the guts to jump right into the scrum of life, some days you will just lose. You’ll fail.  You’ll be beaten. That’s non-negotiable.

That’s not a very popular truth to name, how to accept losing and even learn how to lose well.  I’m embargoing all sports newspaper sections and sports talk radio this week because of our cultural bias to always lionize the winners and rip to shreds the “losers”. Millions of words have already been written and spoken about the Pats and guaranteed most of those opinions will be about blame, finger pointing, and even shame.  The only thing worse than a sore winner is a sore loser. 

No, instead this is the spiritual advice I’d give my fellow Pats fan and middle school friend, about the loss on Sunday night, all losses.  Don’t just focus on the final score.  Celebrate the fact that the game was played and played very well, down to the last second. Give thanks that you care deeply and are loyal to the things which matter most to you.  At the end of the struggle, no matter what the outcome, take pride in the fact that the people you cheered for left it all on the field and gave it their absolute best effort.  That is what life is finally all about.  Not just winning but striving always, stretching, pushing, trying. 

To lose and lose well and yet not be defeated.  Theodore Roosevelt knew great loss.  Awful personal loss: in one day his beloved mother and his wife both died. Bitter political loss: after having triumphantly served as President, he was trounced in an independent bid for the Presidency.  He struggled all his life with chronic asthma and terrible eye sight and yet he showed up every day to play and to fight and to compete. 

As he declared, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” 

Sometimes we just lose.  The choice is ours: will we be defeated?

Friday, February 3, 2012

An Athlete's Prayer: How to Play the Game On and Off the Field

“God, let me play well but fairly. Help me to learn something that matters once the game is over. Let competition make me strong but never hostile. Always let me help my opponent up. Never catch me rejoicing in the adversity of others. If I know victory, allow me to be happy; if I am denied, keep me from envy. Remind me that sports are just games. If through athletics I set an example, let it be a good one. Amen.”