Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

International Panic Day

Holidays have diverse origins. Some appear to have been made up in a fit of madness, bearing no particular relevance to anything. When I saw a publisher offering an “International Panic Day” sale, however, I supposed it was a joke. A quick web search indicated otherwise. June 18, for reasons nobody can really identify, is International Panic Day. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Marge, liberated from her phobia of being mugged, runs past grandpa calling, “I’m not afraid!” to which he replies, “Then you’re not paying attention.” Fear and panic, while not the same thing, live in the same neighborhood. Many analysts point to fear as the primal emotion behind religion. We may never be able to prove that with any certainty, but I can’t think that panic has a religious origin. Many panics have emerged from religious fervor, but the panic itself seems not to have conceived religion.

Run_on_the_Seamen's_Savings'_Bank_during_the_Panic_of_1857

According to Holiday Insights (dot com, of course) no information can be found on the origins of the holiday, which makes it sound like a perfect internet invention. It is a day to feel unsettled. For some of us, that seems like most days. Again citing the wisdom of cartoons, Charlie Brown notes in the 1965 Christmas special, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Holidays can be like that sometimes. But a panic day? I have an amateur theory that International Panic Day derives from Panic Day (about which Holiday Insights also has no information), which falls on March 9.

Some online sources have noted that the choice of June 18 is a strange one for International Panic Day because the next day is already (and has been since 1979) World Sauntering Day. This holiday is believed to have begun at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Apparently W.T. Rabe, the holiday’s creator, was reacting to how popular jogging had become and wanted people to slow down for a day. International Panic Day would seem to suggest that running is the best option. Without a goal, of course, other than just to get away. Maybe there is a connection with religion after all. Having long been a fan of Douglas Adams, however, I am a devotee of his contra-mantra: don’t panic.

DSCN1993

Degradation

Having felt like an automaton in the realm of higher education, I was occasionally overwhelmed by the number of students and lack of resources. One of my fervent beliefs is that multiple-choice tests do not really demonstrate what a student knows, but playing the numbers, I sometimes had to resort to them. Being an adjunct, I didn’t have access to Scantron, so I devised a method of stacking the sheets precisely and grading them with a power drill. It was my one bit of notoriety at Rutgers—I was the guy who graded with a drill. All the while, however, I knew that a truer method would be to allow students to write for themselves. Even that, however, is going the way of automation. A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that student papers are sometimes being graded by robots. Real robots. The truly scary part of the story is that the robots provide grading almost indistinguishable from the professor, a species quickly becoming obsolete. I tell myself not to panic.

“Don’t panic,” of course, was the catch-phrase popularized by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In a world overwhelmed by forces we can’t hope to understand, panic is a natural enough reaction. Adams gave us Marvin the Paranoid Android. Higher education has given us the paranoid professor. Parents who pay extraordinary—mythologically high—tuition rates often ask me where all that money goes. It certainly doesn’t line the pockets of humanities professors; indeed, many of the classes are taught by adjuncts who are the penny dreadfuls of academia. I don’t know where the money goes. I do know that university presidents and football coaches are not wanting for material goods, but even their greed can’t account for the entire greenback drain.

If I were still a professor I’d be tempted to ignore the sage advice of Douglas Adams about now. Courses can be covered by an overwhelming army of competent adjuncts, and grading can be contracted out to robots. Students really don’t even need to come to class any more as distance education has taught us. College becomes little more than an excuse to drink while away from home with a hefty tab being picked up by the folks back home. Higher education may have had the seeds of its own destruction always planted within itself. We’ve confused technology with the desire for increasing comfort and ease of lifestyle. It was only a matter of time before universities caught up. Standing by the grave of Douglas Adams in Highgate Cemetery I’m thinking that his bizarre vision of the future was more sensible than what has actually evolved in our culture. That, and I’m glad I learned to use a power drill.

Bookends

There is something extremely satisfying about bookends. Bookends are those events that bracket moments of our lives and give them a frame, a perspective they would otherwise lack. If my readers will indulge my recollections of my trip to Britain for a day or so longer, some of this may become apparent in esoteric ways. Our kind hosts in London live in Highgate. Our first bleary-eyed morning in the city we wandered to Highgate Cemetery. This burial ground is divided by Swain’s Lane and that makes it frightfully convenient to charge separate admission fees for the two halves. Both, however, are worth the pounds dropped to gain entrance. Our first visit was via tour group on the western half of the grounds. The ornate—indeed grand—architecture of this necropolis bespoke the mysterious connection between the living and the dead. Tycoons are buried there, as is the non-conformist Michael Faraday, a name that lingers on from my childhood physics classes.

Highgate Cemetery West

Just before leaving to board our flight back to the States, we completed the bookend by visiting the eastern half of the cemetery. Here the most famous residents seek eternal rest. The most famous of the dead on this side is Karl Marx. Visitors speaking Cyrillic or Sinitic languages milled about, but even an American idealist might find some grounds for admiring a man who felt deeply about the plight of the workers in society. Just across the lane lies Herbert Spencer, one of the founders of sociology. Less than two minutes will take you to the grave of Mary Anne Evans, known to the literary world as George Eliot. She is not far from Douglas Adams, inventor of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Across the path from Adams rests Anthony Shaffer, writer of both Sleuth and of the screenplay of The Wicker Man.

Highgate Cemetery East

Perhaps it seems macabre to travel such a distance only to bookend a visit with treks to Highgate Cemetery. Death, however, is the ultimate bookend to life, with each generation shoring up those that come after through its unique perspective on what has brought us here. Not even a visit to Westminster Abbey is complete without paying respects to the most noteworthy of the Brits found both within and without its walls. This trip to England will remain in my memory as the pilgrimage bookended by the solemn parentheses of death. With such august company, however, one might have less to fear from that final veil that all must face.