Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dalí Atomicus

My best friend, Paul, and I were reminiscing the other night about life in our hometown of Redlands, CA, and what it was like being kids in the 70s and 80s. There weren't many days back then when you wouldn't find Paul and I hanging out, playing pretend, riding our bikes, climbing around on his treehouse, and coming up with silly adventures to feed our passions for imagination and fantasy. Some days, we'd get on our bikes, ride a few miles into town, go to the mall, play at the Flipper Flapper arcade, get Hot Dog on a Stick, and then bike all the way back to his house where we'd play games on his Apple IIe, order pizza, and watch our favorite movies his family had recorded on their old Betamax machine.

We fancied ourselves as living in a perpetual adventure not unlike the kids in Stand By Me. Even when we'd travel on our bikes, we'd still play pretend, shoot imaginary guns at each other, act like we were eluding bad guys, or just jump off ramped driveway edges acting like BMX pros. And our passion for this life-within-a-life never stopped. In the late 80s and on into the 90s, we continued and we were wonderfully equipped by technology. When we weren't playing games on Nintendo or Atari, we were running around in Castle Wolfenstein, unceasingly clicking on peons in Orcs & Humans, or going back through Goldeneye to see who could complete the first level the fastest. In our late teens, we weren't as inclined to play pretend, but we were just as energetic to immerse ourselves in something that wasn't real because it tickled our stomachs, made us smile, and took us away from homework, school bullies, and other real world nonsense. We didn't have time to waste or worry because dreaming and adventuring were far more important.

That still carries on to this day. Last night, Paul got a chance to learn more about my life since he and his family moved to Washington State about 25 years ago. While we've regularly stayed in touch and played games together, he hasn't had the same involvement in my day-to-day life so he had no idea how rough it has been. Yet, despite the sobering reality, we both still want that life in a life. We might be in our mid-40s, but our sense of adventure and fun hasn't dwindled. We can look back on the things we did with great delight, and we can still picture things we want to do with the same giddiness we had as children. If I could teleport myself to his living room right now, we'd likely go right back to ordering pizza, watching movies, and playing video games until the wee hours of the morning.

Dalí Atomicus is a black and white photograph taken by Philippe Halsman (1906 - 1979) in 1948. It depicts Salvador Dalí (1904 - 1989) in, frankly, a silly situation where he's painting Leda Atomica while cats fly in, water is strewn about, and everything else is floating. According to a documentary about the making of this picture, this was the 28th take. Today, it is considered one of the most famous photographs ever taken, and rightfully so. Nothing in all of history has been this deliberately over-the-top that this humble art lover can think of. And it's even more impressive because it was done in a time where Photoshop didn't exist, but that hasn't taken anything away from the visual pleasure.

I like to think of Dalí as someone who embraced silliness, adventure, and pretend. In his day, technology wasn't where it is today so I see his passion for fantasy and creativity in his artwork. Who else thinks to paint melting clocks on a table and a broken face and a tree branch? And while he may have taken his art seriously, I don't think he took life too seriously. Therein lies the issue we face today.

Society seems to think being silly and embracing fantasy aren't necessary or proper anymore. For those who do, they tend to keep that stuff hidden away from prying eyes thanks to feeling inadequate about it on some level. Too many are worried about this and that, complain about things they cannot control, and waste energy trying to "figure it all out". Too many want to scream about stuff they don't like or agree with, and when they do, they're only stealing fun and fantasy from themselves. The time and energy being wasted on life's crap that cannot be controlled is time and energy that could have been spent nurturing passion, finding entertainment, and escaping the grip of stress and worry.

Video games are a great example of a wonderful form of entertainment here in the 21st Century. I'm not ashamed to say, I still enjoy them because in the end, they can take my mind off life and away from stress just as easily as a movie or TV show, if not more so. Why? Because instead of me being told where the story goes, I get to be in control and do whatever I want while only being limited by the game's design. When I watch a movie, I have to take what's already been created as it is. I can't stop a film mid-way and say, nope, I don't like that that character was just killed off so let's change it. From beginning to end, it is what it is whether I like it or not. In a video game, however, my story is whatever I want it to be, whenever I want it to be. But regardless of entertainment, I get to still embrace that life in a life I had as a kid.

I'm no longer a fan of playing pretend because I've matured. While I can still feel that passion deep down in my heart, I just wouldn't do it today. What hasn't left me, though, is the thrill of having my mind taken away from work, stress, bills, loneliness, and other real world situations and circumstances. Some people use drugs to achieve this. Not me. I choose to write, play games, watch entertaining shows and movies . . . and dream. I dream! I've never stopped dreaming! And I never will. This is what seems to be missing in so many these days. Dalí dreamed and he was able to magnificently present those dreams in this photograph and in his amazing works of art. Dreaming is a gift and while I'm no expert on animals, I think humans are the only species able to enjoy dreaming at will. Why anyone would forsake dreaming is beyond me, and man, they sure are missing out on life.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Les Bourgeois de Calais

Arland had no idea on January 12, 1982, that he would make history and become a hero in less than 24 hours. Little is known about why Arland was where he was on January 13, just that he was a federal bank examiner and likely traveling for business.

The weather in Washington, D.C. that next day was freakishly bad. Snow, ice, and high winds plagued the region and plunged the city into an arctic state. Over 6 feet of snow had accumulated leading to the Washington National Airport to shut down. Prior to cancelling flights and despite repeated warnings, though, the pilot of Air Florida Flight 90 refused to abandon their scheduled trip. As Arland, 73 other passengers, and 5 crew boarded the plane, what would happen next left the world in shock.

As the plane taxied to the runway for take-off, human error was already in play and doom had set in. First, they gave a blind eye to the clearly visible snow building up on the wings as well as the runway and surrounding area. Second, the pilots failed to activate the aircraft's ice protection system while they chose to ignore other on-board warnings that the plane would not make it. Third, it didn't help that the taxi alone took 49 minutes thus exacerbating conditions, and that was after the towing vehicle couldn't even find traction to get the plan going in the first place. What was apparent, however, was that the captain was determined to get the aircraft in the air no matter what.

Upon take-off, the plane struggled to gain altitude, and immediately fell and struck the 14th Street Bridge less than a mile off the end of the runway hitting 7 vehicles, and killing 4 people. The plane then plunged into the Potomac River which was blanketed by jagged ice. When it hit the ice and water, the plane split in two and as the front section of the fuselage sank, the tail section stayed afloat in the water.

This is where things take a turn for the worse, but the better. Of the 79 people on board, 6 survived and they were badly injured. As they scrambled to the tail section to cling on for dear life and seek assistance, not one of them knew it would take so long due to the weather conditions. After 20 minutes of failed attempts to reach the survivors by land, boat, and even dog-paddling, a helicopter from the U.S. Park Police was dispatched to man a rescue. The perilous mission would prove there was and is good reason to have faith in humanity.

When the chopper arrived, a rescue rope was tossed down to Arland, one of the 6 survivors. Despite his injuries and weather conditions, Arland was surprisingly alert. Seeing that the other 5 people were in worst condition than him, he passed the rope to the person next to him. One by one, Arland continued to pass the rope so 3 of the other 5 could be safely hauled to land. That's when the pilots noticed one of the survivors had drifted away from the wreckage and was flailing in the freezing water, stuck on a chunk of ice. She was very quickly dying, and it was all captured on live TV. With two other rescuers who dove into the frigid waters, they were able to save her. The helicopter crew then turned their attention back to the wreckage to pick up the two remaining people. Arland and another woman were now separated by conditions so they lowered the skids into the water to haul the remaining female on board who was too weak to grab onto the rope. When they finally returned for Arland, he was no where to be found. They spent over 30 minutes searching for him before they were called away. Days later, it would be discovered that the wreckage had shifting sucking Arland down underwater causing him to drown.

Les Bourgeois de Calais, by Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), is a bronze statue depicting 6 burghers (politically connected and influential citizens) volunteering their lives to King Edward III to parley surrender on behalf of the city of Calais, France, in 1347. The piece was commissioned by the city in 1884, and it was completed in 1889. At the time, they wished to commemorate the lives of those who willingly gave themselves up at the command of King Edward III, and for the survival of the people of Calais who were embroiled in the Hundred Years' War.

Rodin is best known for his piece, The Thinker, but in all of art history, Les Bourgeois de Calais is known to be one of the most historically famous sculptures ever created. During that period in time, France was losing the battle against England, and as the city of Calais struggled to hold their lines and defense of the city and castle, they fell into starvation. This was when Edward offered to spare the people of Calais if 6 of its top leaders would give themselves up, wear nooses around their necks, and give him the keys to the city and castle. The first of the volunteers was a wealthy town leader named Eustache de Saint Pierre, and he is seen in the piece leading the group to the city gates to be turned over to the crown. It wasn't until Philippa of Hainault, the wife of King Edward III, stepped in and persuaded her husband to show mercy for the sake of the unborn child, Thomas of Windsor (who, ironically, died 1 year after birth).

I picked the Arland Williams story to highlight the significance of this piece because of the incredible amount of compassion and sacrifice he showed in order that others might live. Had he grabbed the rope and held on, who knows? Perhaps the woman seen struggling in the ice would have died instead. Much like Arland and all of the life he still had ahead him, Saint Pierre and the others were also willing to give it all up for strangers. It's even more astonishing to comprehend when you think about the life Eustache must have had. He was rich, influential, and according to painting of him by artist Jean-Simon Berthélemy, he was handsome, powerful, and well-liked.

Stories of heroism are, nowadays, a dime-a-dozen. Yet, with each, I find myself blown away by the sheer level of compassion and self-sacrifice for the good of others - often strangers. From Medal of Honor recipients to men like Arland and Saint Pierre, I'm reminded of the inherent good in humanity that the world and media would otherwise have you believe didn't exist. Let's none of us forget that, and let's also never forget those who sacrificed their own lives in order that others may live.