Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day, Veterans Day - don't confuse them

As a retired Army officer, I tend to get pretty exercised at the widespread notion in the media and public commemorations of Memorial Day that this day is set aside to honor living veterans. It's not. That's done on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Memorial Day is to honor and give thanks for the service, dedication and sacrifice of members of the American armed forces who gave their lives in the service of their country. We also honor those who survived their service but have died since.

Which is to say that Memorial Day is set aside to honor the memory of dead, not thank the living.

Memorial Day as we know it grew from diverse strands of decorating the graves of Civil War dead, begun in various towns just after the war ended. One tradition says that Southern women, mainly widows and bereaved mothers, began laying flowers on graves of Confederate dead before the war ended. Many people today think that this tradition continued as a separate Southern practice called Decoration Day, while it was the North that practiced Memorial Day.

While not exactly wrong, it's not altogether true. Beginning with a proclamation by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, Memorial Day was first widespread observed in 1868 to honor the dead of the Civil War. Graves of both Union and Confederate dead at Arlington Cemetery were decorated with flowers.

By 1890, all the states of the former northern Union recognized the day, but it still honored only Civil War dead. Southern states did not join in observing this day, continuing to honor Confederate dead on other dates (not uniform across the South). People generally think that this day was called Decoration Day, but I cannot find any citation to confirm it. (The old CSA memorializing of Confederate dead is still on the books of many Old South states; it is June 3 here in Tennessee.)

After World War I, the dead of that war were added to the honor roll of Memorial Day, then almost immediately the dead of all American wars. At that, the Southern states joined in and there has been a unified observance since.

Memorial Day was generally an observance by the several states until President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation in 1966 designating May 30 as national Memorial Day. There the day remained until Congress passed legislation in 1971 called the National Holiday Act. The Act made Memorial Day and most other federal holidays always occur on a Monday. Whether this served to strip the day of its solemn meaning I'll leave it to you to evaluate.

Unlike Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Memorial Day is a unique American holiday. The other English-speaking nations observe Nov. 11, the date World War I ended, just as we do. However, the observance is called Remembrance Day in Canada, Australia, Bermuda and some other lands of the former British Empire. New Zealand observes Nov. 11 in a low key way, the main observance being ANZAC Day, April 25. In the United Kingdom Nov. 11 is also commemorated in a low-key manner, the main observance being the second Sunday of November, called Remembrance Sunday.

In these nations, commemorations accomplish in one day what Memorial Day and Veterans Day do in America.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cool pic of the day

An amateur astronomer has taken the photo of a lifetime - the space shuttle transiting between the sun and the earth.



That is definitely the cool pic of the day. More here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Money doesn't bring you happiness . . ."

Four wealthy Yorkshiremen vacationing on the French Riviera reminisce about how happy they were when they were dirt poor:




Now, Conor Clarke, writing from England, asks, "What Makes Us Happy? Not Jobs.."
Joshua Shenk's Atlantic essay on happiness has gotten plenty of response (see David Brooks in yesterday morning's New York Times), but one thing that I find striking about the piece is how little focus there is on material gains as the right route to happiness. When the doctor in charge of the Grant Study lists the factors that predict happy aging -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing "mature adaptations" -- there is no mention of career success or even career stability. Relationships matter; incomes don't. This comports pretty well with my general understanding of self-reported happiness studies and gives me a chance to print my second favorite graph in the history of economics:

Clarke points out that though this graph portrays Britain, the same results are found around the world. Even though Britons' (and Americans') material circumstances have been improving, often quite substantially and rapidly for the last 50 years or so, we do not claim to be happier now than we did back then.

It would be a mistake to infer, however, that material sufficiency has no relation to happiness. In 1943, Abraham Maslow promulgated his theory of human "hierarchy of needs," a tier of life conditions that Maslow said are necessary for life itself, at the bottom of the tier, and for human flourishing and happiness, moving up to higher-level needs.

At the bottom, of course, are the needs essential to live at all - food, air, water, sleep and other life-essential things. These are physiological needs shared with any other creature. Above them are human-specific (mostly) needs - safety employment, family, and so on. As the tier rises, the needs become steadily less bodily and more psychological - respect, achievement, creativity, and so forth.

Happiness, to Maslow, resulted from being able to meet the higher-level needs, which was in turn dependent upon meeting the basic type of needs. Persons chronically hungry or fearful of their safety are quite unlikely to describe themselves as happy.

Unless ...

As influential as Maslow's work was and deservedly remains, about the same time he published it a man named Viktor Frankl was developing his own theory. Frankl, though, worked as a captive of Nazi Germany, held in concentration camps, where his whole family died. Building on work he had begun before the war, he used his experiences in the camps to refine a psychotherapy built on the hypothesis that the very fundamental human needs are neither bodily ones nor material ones at all. The basic need is to have meaning and purpose in one's life. That is, Frankl turned Maslow's pyramid upside down and claimed that Maslow's higher needs are actually the most elemental.

Frankl's postwar book, Man's Search for Meaning, was named one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century by the Library of Congress. So it is. And therein lies the key to why people on all points on the economic spectrum can say they are happy, or not.

It is simply this: Material prosperity is not a bad thing (as some of Left would have us believe), but neither is it good, in itself, to be pursued as the object of life (as some on the Right would have us believe). Things, even an abundance of them, cannot make us happy (though severe, ongoing lack of Maslow's basic needs can prevent happiness). Frankl is right: it what we make of life that makes us happy, which is why, even in the direst of physical circumstances in the Nazi camps, he was able to cling to the conviction there was meaning in his suffering. He relates another inmate's insistence that if the camps' survivor could not find meaning in life after the war, there could be no meaning to the camps. To the contrary, Frankl insisted, if there was no meaning in the camps, there could be no meaning to surviving them.

A common theme among the writers of the classics is the unhappy, if not suicidal, wealthy man. One need consider only Charles Foster Kane, subject of Orson Welles' 1941 classic, still ranked by the American Film Institute as the best American movie ever. Stupendously wealthy, surrounded by every material blessing money can buy, Kane nonetheless becomes an embittered old man who finally dies alone, as unhappy as a man can be.



What went wrong in Kane's life? As this clip shows, he suffered from self-inflicted deterioration of the relationships that should have been most important to him, the only ones that could have sustained him and provided meaning for his passion.

That is the key: relationships. And I'll take a look at that in the next installment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek 2009 not quite a bullseye . . .

... but it's still pretty good.

I may as well jump on the Star Trek review bandwagon and post mine. I went with the fam last evening to see the new ST movie. Is it really a prequel to the other movies and the 1960s TV series? No, it's not, any more than Casino Royale, in which James Bond receives his double-oh designation, was a prequel to the other Bond flicks.

In fact, like Casino, ST 2009 hits the reset button on the franchise. Let me discuss that before I talk about the merits of the movie itself. There are some spoilers here, but get real - how can there really be spoilers when you know in advance that the movie's main intent is to show how Kirk and Co. wind up on USS Enterprise? Yes, they win (as the always do) in the fight with the bad guy and live to tell the tale. So here goes.

James T. Kirk is born in space at the beginning of the show, aboard an escape rocket fleeing the doomed USS Kelvin, captained, for 12 minutes, by Kirk's father, who sacrifices himself to save the crew. We next see Kirk at age 10, having swiped his father's antique Corvette for a joy ride while the Beastie Boy's "Sabotage" plays over all. Kirk, pursued by a cop on a flying motorcycle, drives the 'Vette off a cliff, jumping clear at the last moment.

Herein lie the first clues:
  • The Vette is a 1966 model, the same year that the ST TV series debuted. The Vette is destroyed. Does this mean that the legacy is also being thrown (mostly) off a cliff? Why, yes, yes it does.
  • The song symbolizes that director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are indeed sabotaging the Star trek legacy in order to sart over.

There is other proof within the storyline of the movie, but that would be giving too much away here. Suffice to say that at movie's end it is literally impossible for this movie's story future trajectory to merge with that of the TV series or the previous ST movies. We'll see how that works out. If this film's sequel is as sorry as Quantum of Solace was to Casino Royale, then the reset won't work too well.

So I suggest enjoying the movie as escapist entertainment rather than viewing it as a true prequel or another in the ST series. There are enough trekkie things in the show to establish a good connection with the series' legacy, such as a tribble sitting on Scotty's desk when he first appears, but in the end they do not matter. The movie should have been subtitled, "Starting All Over."

Leonard Nimoy's appearance as "Spock Prime" (so credited at the end) is a nice touch, as is his uttering a few lines from the older movies. It works just right. I thought it quite satisfying when he identified himself to the young Kirk by saying, "I am Spock." After the TV series was canceled, Nimoy tried to run away from it and establish a career as a serious dramatic actor. He even published a book in the mid-1970s called, I Am Not Spock. But, in the winter years of his life he has come to admit that Star Trek has defined his career (actually, he realized this long before now - the sequel to I Am Not Spock is I Am Spock, appearing 20 years later).

The Villain: Eric Bana as the destruction-bent Romulan, Nero, is excellent. He doesn't top Ricardo Montalban in Wrath of Khan, but nonetheless Nero is a worthy nemesis. And his threat is properly galactic: he wants to destroy every planet of the Federation and thanks to Spock Prime, he can (a zipped lip on that one, too).

The Enterprise crew:

Zachary Quinto as young Spock is excellent. Karl Urban as Bones is "excellent-minus," very good, but not quite as good in his part as Quinto is in his. Uhura and Spock have a thing for each other? Who knew? In the TV series it was Nurse Chapel who was enamored with Spock, IIRC, but her role long ago got beamed away. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura very well. Chekov and Sulu are presented competently, if not exactly inspiringly. Young Scotty, we learn, was a chowhound with an overdone Scottish brogue.

Ah, but what of Chris Pine, paying the major role of James T. Kirk? Sorry, bad idea. IMO, he just doesn't cut it. It's not that he acts the part of space cadet, then Enterprise officer, badly, he just doesn't act them as Kirk. You can pretty easily imagine young Spock maturing into Nimoy's Spock, and young Uhura and McCoy and the rest becoming the personalities we already know. But Pine's Kirk in unimaginable to become Shatner's Kirk.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

But how is the movie as a movie? My wife, who is no sci-fi fan, enjoyed it. My eldest son, who is very familiar with the ST legacy, and my young daughter, who is not, also liked it a lot. As for me, I'll put it this way - I'll probably spring for the DVD when it comes out, but I won't pay hard-earned coin to see it in the theater again. There are times to movie seems too frantic and plot developments too forced. But it's enjoyable and pays enough tribute to the legacy to justify seeing it in theater once. So I recommend it. Overall, I give Star Trek 2009 seven out 10 NCC-1701s.