Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Indian Summer, Chickens and Eggs

Like a child's painting, Venus and a sliver of new moon decorate the crayon-yellow western sky during my evening walk... obviously, summer's attempt to leave its best impression, hoping we'll forget the stifling months of August and July. The weather forecasters promise that autumn is on its way, and indeed the trees obey the calendar by blushing red on time, but still the night air lays warm and calm, and the only sign it isn't summer still is the early twilight.

As I walked through the neighborhood I thought about an op/ed column I wrote years ago entitled, "The Chicken Or The Egg," and if I weren't so lazy I'd go find it and just retype it here. But lazy I am, and so I'll summarize.

Where, oh where, are the heroes of our age? Where are the giants whose solitary life impacts the forward flow of civilization, that upward spiral reaching to infinity? Where are today's men and women who define needs and opportunitites and then shape our collective destiny?

Or do the needs and crises of the age create the hero, and the lack of them today indicates that we are stuck in a morass of mediocrity, of blind and manic acquisition, of seeing only as far as our own doorsteps, or profits, because our global vision has been blinded by completely selfish living?

The chicken or the egg? The hero or the age?

I think about the artists, explorers and philosophers of the Renaissance and the few hundred years that followed, and all the giants' names we still revere, with good reason. I think of the inventors, scientists, pioneers, and yes, capitalists, who strengthened the backbone of America and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries and wonder.... where are their counterparts today?

Are our giants so puny and self-involved they can't produce anything more significant than a new Playstation or MP3 player, one more internal combustion monster, or yet another variety of junk breakfast cereal?

Is it that our age, perhaps on a downward drift, doesn't demand or can't contain a Michaelangelo, an Edison, a Bell, an Alexander Fleming, a Sir Francis Drake, a James Watt, a John Charles Fremont: those driven geniuses and explorers whose scales never weighed risks, only benefits, those whose vision, conviction, drive and power of persuasion could wring every last nickel from investors (with their own vision and courage) -- and provide heaps of reward for humanity?

Or, since collaboration has become the norm and the necessity, has the committee killed the drive that fuels creative genius, and we face a future of nothing but a horse-made-camel? Maybe the days of the single individual, alone with his/her dreams and skills tinkering about in some obscure laboratory or library have vanished. Research today is funded in the billions and its products realized in the trillions -- have we advanced beyond the abilities of the single individual? Have we come to function as a hive? But then, whose name will be written in history?

Maybe it's a matter of perspective. If you start with a bare plot of ground and build a castle, that result is huge, overpowering, incredibly conspicuous. Our 19th and 20th century notable achievements started in a desert where there was little and mushroomed into our current state: a transcontinental railway becomes worldwide transportation, the industrial and electronic revolutions completely change the life of the common man in western countries, elimination of so many lethal diseases have increased our lifespan and the quality of that life (for those with access). All the infrastructure of our life and culture, which would have been miracles in the 16th century, has become commonplace today. With so much behind us, with an established foundation and now so much around us, maybe we just don't notice the monumental achievements that do occur in the vast complexity of our current civilization.

Maybe great achievements and their perpetrators are only noticed through the perspective of history, and maybe we, as contemporaneous creatures without the desire or ability to view the whole, see only limited pieces of the mosaic.

I still have to wonder, though, if the needs and opportunities of the age call to the genius that shapes the future,
or if the giants themselves, with a vision and inspiration we can only record, not truly understand or experience, trigger the need then provide the response....
the chicken or the egg,
the hero or the age?

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