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Today, for no discernible reason, I remembered a treasure of my childhood–a Star Trek coloring book from the 1970s for the awesome (but often-overlooked) Star Trek animated series which had Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, and the rest of the original cast voicing the characters.  By its very nature, the animated series allowed for a much broader variety of strange alien lifeforms and mind-shattering outer space hijinks (which meant there were Kzinti and Phylosians and whatnot running around).

The coloring book (which my father brought home to cheer me up when I had a bad ear infection) was similarly awesome, with whole pages dedicated to crazy aliens. There was one particular 2 page spread with an entire alien ecosystem (!), which I often stared at longingly. But there was a problem: my 5 year old self did not have the fine motor control (nor the other requisite tools) to color these magnificent images in the fashion which they deserved. I tried coloring a lesser picture of some redshirts and junior officers, and it turned into a disaster of jagged mustard, orange, and puke colored wax expressionism (remember this was the 70s). There was no way I was going to deface those incredible alien worlds with such raw artistic incompetence.

“Captain, I very much fear that the ship is taking on unsustainable quantities of magenta. Also, our enlisted personnel have been bisected by a ‘goldenrod’ line”

So I didn’t color my favorite coloring book and I waited to get good enough to be worthy of it. But, alas, by the time I reckoned myself to be sufficiently talented to properly color the best pages (2009, maybe?), the book was long gone. I would like to make a joke about that janky seventies newsprint turning yellow and brittle over the decades, but I think my mom threw it away back in the day because I wasn’t using it (also, she not-very-secretly disliked Star Trek for reasons unknown & unfathomable). But even if the book had somehow survived up until now (when I finally have the French gauche and 300 sharpened Prismacolor pencils necessary for the assignment) would I color such a thing? Of course not! I can draw my own alien planets (and, cough, perhaps the illustration quality of this book does not entirely warrant the enthusiasm I had for it as a child).

But the seventies Star Trek coloring book is still my favorite coloring book and, in retrospect, its lessons might outstrip the (treasured and hard-won) lessons of the coloring books which I did color. For not only did it teach us about exploration, equality, and the boundless strength of the human (and Vulcan…and Edosian) spirit, the coloring book also taught lessons about living life NOW, not in some abstract future where everything is perfect. Would I have been happy with the job I did coloring the Phylosians or Captain Kirk holding a paring knife? No, of course not! No matter what decade it is, I am never satisfied with my artwork no matter what form it takes. But at least I would have had the pleasure of confronting the challenge and learning from it and moving on. Now it will forever be trapped in the past, uncolored (unless I somehow find the images online…or buy an adult Star Trek coloring book…or go to a website where you can color this online right this moment). Sigh…

What really worries me is whether I have actually learned this lesson or whether I am leaving the best part of life to be lived on a day which never arrives.

You could change course NOW though

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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