Sunday, August 26, 2012

Life's little annoyances

The supermarket needs a fast check-out line with a sign that says "For REALLY impatient people who are REALLY in a hurry & who DEFINITELY have 14 or fewer items & who can pay WITHOUT complica-tions." And it should only be staffed by cashiers who are REALLY fast; none of this la-de-dah-I've-got-all-the-time-in-the-world business; none of this chat-the-customer-up-show-him-how-friendly-you-are business.

As you can no doubt surmise from the above I just returned from the supermarket where once again I found myself in a "fast" check-out line that was anything but. When I first got in line the other two fast lanes that were open were just as long; but then two others were suddenly opened up, and all the people behind me and at the ends of the other two lines swarmed to the new opportunities. I couldn't join the swarm without trampling over the people in the line next to me.

And then, as I stood there, I saw that all the other lines, new and old, were moving forward steadily, whereas my line had not moved an iota since I got in it. The couple at the front of the line evidently had a payment difficulty -- credit card wouldn't approve the payment or some such nonsense. And the little cashier was of the slow as molasses in December variety, so that even when the first couple finally got their difficulties straightened out and departed, plastic bags in hand, it took forever for her to take care of the next customer, and the next (behind whom I stood). Although it has been my experience that as soon as I change lanes, that lane freezes, and the one I was in originally suddenly grows wings, I finally couldn't take it another minute, especially when I saw that one of the new lanes was now completely empty, had taken care of all the people who had been behind me, and then some. I walked briskly over, plopped my environmentally-friendly bag of groceries down and began emptying it, was briskly tallied and re-bagged by the efficient cashier, and walked out of the place just half a minute before the women who had been behind me in the original line.

I know that my impatience is one of my least attractive -- and most noticeable -- attributes. I suspect that the gods that be throw slow check-out lines, along with slow cars on the roads, in my path, to test my patience, to (presumably) encourage me to develop greater patience. I keep telling them this is a complete waste of everybody's valuable time. This is a character flaw I don't even seem inclined to try to curb. Whenever I am doing something I don't want to do -- like drive, like stand in line at the supermarket or the drug store, like cook -- I am impatient to just get this over with. But the indifferent cosmos rolls on at its own immutable clip, and I am left to fume and be rude if given half a chance.

That's life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A page from history

I mentioned recently that I had made a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the graduation from law school of my goddaughter. I wasn't able to do much sightseeing on that trip, but one place I did visit, that I'd long wanted to visit, was Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

My hotel was in China Town, just a few blocks from the theatre, so I could easily walk over. If you order tickets online, they cost $2.50 a piece, but there are a number of free tickets available on a first-come-first served basis each day, and I got one of those at the box office, then had to go stand at the end of the line waiting to be let in. They count people entering, and when the numbers equal seating capacity, entry is cut off until the next tour time. You're (politely) herded into the theatre -- can sit upstairs in the lower balcony, or downstairs in the orchestra. There's a very interesting talk by a Ranger -- the site is part of the National Park Service -- about not just the events of that night, but what came before and after, as well. One of the interesting tidbits of information he supplied: in the 1860s the comfortable seats we were sitting in were not in place. There were straight-back wooden chairs, which people were at liberty to move around. "You could see some of your friends over there," the Ranger said, "And just pick up your chair and move over to join them."

He also mentioned the fact that the President and his party arrived about 30 minutes into the play -- which was apparently not unusual -- and that, when it was realized that President Lincoln had arrived, the play stopped, and the audience stood up to applaud him. He acknowledged the applause, then went on to the Presidential box with his wife and guests. Listening to this I was thinking, "How disruptive of the play!"

After the Ranger's talk, as people were filing out, I walked down to the stage to get a look at the theatre from that perspective. From my seat back under the overhanging balcony it had seemed very small, intimate, but from the stage I saw that there were two balconies, and it wasn't really all that small.

I had found it very moving, looking at the box where President Lincoln was sitting when he was shot. But later I picked up a brochure in the lobby, and learned from it that the building was turned into offices for the Army Medical Museum and Library not long after the government took it over in 1866 (it was closed immediately after the assassination); part of the interior collapsed in 1887, killing a number of people, and had to be rebuilt, after which it was used as a government records warehouse. The Lincoln Museum took the building over in 1932, but it looked nothing like the old theatre inside. It was only following restoration, which finally took place 1962-1967, that the place come to look more or less as it had looked in 1865 (except for the seats. :-) )

Thus, I suppose it could almost be argued that this is essentially a theme park, since virtually only the front outer wall of the building is original. But the restoration was very well-done, meticulous in its attention to historical detail, and the history lessons provided are fascinating.

There is also a museum in the basement that can be visited in the other kind of visit that is possible (talk-in-theatre-plus-visit-to-museum), but the time slot I was in allowed only the former, which was actually all right with me. My biggest disappointment was that I couldn't get a good shot of the exterior, which is very handsome indeed, because of where the sun was.  So I've borrowed from the experts. 

I was glad I went.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Going where no one has gone before

My friend Joey was asking me what I thought of the space program. Was I for it, or did I think it was a waste of money that could be put to better use here on planet Earth. I told him I was very much for it, but I have to say, I'm not that enthusiastic about all this exploration of the planet Mars.

Curiosity has now been deposited safely on the planet's surface -- certainly no mean accomplish-ment. Imagine: the NASA folk were able to build and direct by remote control a space ship that would travel over 100 million miles and then gently deposit the latest rover on the surface of another planet. Very impressive indeed.

But...for what purpose? To see if they can find more and better evidence that there may have been life on that planet at one time. But I can't see the point in that. If there was any form of life in some distant past, it was certainly in the microbial category. Finding evidence of that is hardly going to answer the question that they keep mentioning in the newscasts these days: are we alone? We already know we are alone in our own solar system, as far as life forms in any way approaching our own go. We have to look way, way beyond our own backyard, so to speak, to find the answer to that big, looming question. And I personally think that is what we should be spending those billions of dollars, and all that scientific know-how, on: developing ways to get beyond our solar system. That and figuring out ways to colonize those foreign bodies within our solar system where humans could possibly live, in a controlled environment, since our own planet is rapidly becoming too crowded.

After all, humans have always moved on when the area where they were became too crowded -- not enough resources to support their numbers -- have always explored what was over that rise, beyond those mountains, across that sea. I feel space exploration is just an extension of that, though it is far more difficult, and expensive, than crossing those mountains or that sea. But I don't think we should be wasting our time trying to figure out if there was some primitive form of life on Mars -- or anywhere else -- once upon a time. What is the place like now? What would it take for humans to be able to land on these places, and spend any time on them?

President Obama's space exploration policy, which he outlined in 2008, includes the statement that he "endorses the goal of sending human missions to the Moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars." So do I. Let's get on with it.