Two thousand and five

Moments long past
come forth, afresh
as if they arose
incorruptible, from the crypt
oblivious to the passage of time
each year since no more than
a mild nuisance

the bell rings on the dot
clear as dappled dew in the shade
8:30, first period geometry
on top of the hill, seven staircases up
the first day of the rest of my lfie
on an August day, unsure if school
means that summer weather is now
somehow improper

a continent, an ocean, a decade apart
yet no more distant than
the tips of my fingers

Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

Long before each soul was laid

Now hushed, fields once green;
stained crimson by those that paid
the greatest price, their fate foreseen
long before each soul was laid,
screams dissolve, the cannons fade

bodies clad in rival dye
together form more fertile ground,
so under kindly azure sky,
gleeful daisies now abound
the tragic scene their joy surrounds.

You can’t unspill blood

Bill Weinberg writes today about the incredibly tight security in and around Tiananmen Square, along with preemptive arrests of the types of Chinese citizens that might think about doing a public vigil for the massacre’s 25th anniversary.

As he points out, such over-the-top security is in itself self-defeating. He writes:

The absurd security measures speak to the ultimate futility of trying to suppress the truth this way. The virtual shutting down of the square was itself a perverse and paradoxical commemoration of the massacre on the part of the authorities. Presumably, it caused some children to ask their parents what all the police patrols were about, ironically facilitating the passage of historical memory on to the next generation—even if those children received only veiled and guarded answers. If they were hushed by their parents, this would only serve to heighten their curiosity, and plant seeds of doubt about the morality of the system.

The Tiananmen, 2005
The Tiananmen, 2005

The Los Angeles Times has a feature about what the Square was like – police everywhere, aggressive interrogations, complete blockades for any journalists who looked curious.

This whole scenario shows to me how difficult it is to destroy any memory of 1989. Even if Chinese citizens in Beijing do not know the details of the reform movement and its fate, they know that the government remembers something. One does not radically increase security around a certain date each year by chance. Even if this whole round of arrests and intimidation keep what’s in the black box inside, no one can deny that there is a black box. And it holds something. Some of us have the luxury of knowing a few of the details, but for a foreigner this isn’t part of my national history. It’s one component of 20th century protest, and fits in alongside Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and all those other democratic surges of the late 1980’s and early 90’s. I don’t walk past the Square every morning. My June 4th wasn’t like the tourists from other parts of China who showed up and didn’t know why security was so intrusive. The black box sits in the middle of one of the largest plazas on Earth. No matter what the Chinese state does, it will insist upon itself.

You can’t unspill blood.

Tiananmen on June 4th, 1989 happened. Huge numbers of Chinese participated and survived. Some of the most riveting news photography was taken and published all over the world. People remember. Mother Jones reminds us how young and jubilant these protesters were. Overall all of China there were all segments of society, but the lifeblood in Beijing were kids. Many of whom were younger than I am now, turning 24.

You can’t unspill blood.

Tiananmen Square is the site of a tragedy, even without a single protester reminding, or informing passersby. The government is fighting reform and pro-democratic movements, both within mainland China, in Hong Kong, and all over the world. But it’s also fighting a war against the past. Though economic vitality has been used as a salve for political tension, it cannot work forever. One day the catch-up will end, and China will have the same problems all developed countries have with their pasts.