The Final Frontier

In three weeks, assuming that the Grim Reaper has no plans to kindly stop for me, I will celebrate my 54th birthday.  My feelings about this can best be described by comparing them to the colorful gumballs in the bubblegum machine that greeted me every other Saturday in Mr. Council’s Barbershop on W. 4th Avenue in Red Springs, North Carolina, my hometown.  I would drop my nickel into the slot – yes, I am old enough to remember when bubblegum cost a nickel – twist the dial, and wait in anticipation of the shiny bubblegum marble that was rolling my way.  I rooted for the blue gumballs; but I really did not mind any of the other colors.  Turning 54 is like getting a red gumball; not my favorite, but an interesting change.

What really shook me, however, was that deep inside my sci-fi geek brain, I recalled reading somewhere that Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation or STNG) had assumed command of the U.S.S. Enterprise – D at or near the age of 54.  When STNG premiered back in 1987, I remember thinking that Captain Picard seemed to be a little old for the Captain’s chair. 

Now before you roll your eyes and start drafting well-intentioned comments reminding me that Jean-Luc Picard is a fictional character; let me assure you that I have not completely gone around the asteroid belt.  I still have a reasonably firm grasp on reality.  At least on Tuesdays.  That said, one of the things I love about the Star Trek franchise is the fascinating way in which it confronts complex and oftentimes uncomfortable issues.  And on this particular Tuesday that issue, for me, is aging.

Fans of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast will remember chuckling at the toll time had taken on our heroes, led by the inimitable James Tiberius Kirk.  They were older, rounder, and grayer.  And although Admiral/Captain Kirk’s miraculously lush hair somehow defied both the years and the laws of physics, even he now had to read using old-fashioned spectacles.  It is also true that Kirk did snap at Dr. McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.”  Perhaps.  But in reality, Kirk and his crew were not yet ready to hang up their phasers and check into the Zefram Cochrane Home for Retired Starfleet Officers.  Their long good-bye stretched over four more films – five if you include Kirk’s poignant “shuffling off [his] mortal coil” in Star Trek: Generations (1994).

Kirk’s worthy successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, is the steady hand at the helm of the Enterprise for seven seasons, more than twice the run of the Original Series (STOS).  When we last see Picard (“All Good Things…” STNG S7:E25), he is sitting down to play poker with his senior officers after having survived an adventure in which the fate of humanity itself had hung in the balance.  Accepting Lt. Commander Data’s offer to deal the cards, Captain Picard looks upon his crew with a mixture of fatherly affection and admiration, and chooses the game: “five-card stud, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit.”  The final scene then rises from the card table to a sweeping shot of the Enterprise continuing its journey to where “no one has gone before.”  

Picard’s adventures on the big screen are, in a word, traumatic – bookended by the demise of the legendary Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations (1994) and the android Data’s very human sacrifice in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).  When next we see Picard (Star Trek: Picard, streaming on CBS All Access), twenty years have passed since the events in Nemesis.  Now a retired Starfleet Admiral, it is very clear that  Picard is not immune to the passage of time.  He is still haunted by Data’s death and a subsequent series of events in which he (Picard) had played a part.  And it is from this place of devastating grief and stinging regret that Picard, physically much more frail but still the determined man of principle that we first met in “Encounter at Farpoint” (STNG S1:E1), begins his greatest journey.  Out of respect for my fellow Trekkers, I will not say anything more about the intricate plot of Star Trek: Picard.  Take my advice.  Watch it.  Right now.

The creators of this spinoff series and the stewards of the Star Trek franchise are to be applauded for showing us that one of its most beloved characters does not exactly live happily ever after.  Far from it.  Picard, like the rest of us, must grapple with the inconvenient truth that our decisions and actions – even the ones made with the very best of intentions – can have consequences that we cannot always predict or avoid.  If we are lucky, time and circumstance may provide an opportunity to make amends.  But for most of us, the words of the Bard will ring the truest: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Julius Caesar)

Thus, I am forced to wonder if the familiar Vulcan greeting “Live Long and Prosper” is actually a bit of wisdom from the distant past when Vulcans expressed emotion and had not yet embraced the discipline of logic.   Perhaps Mr. Spock’s ancestors understood that the prosperity afforded by a long life was an understanding of self and the capacity to forgive oneself and others.

Or maybe I am reading too much into a television show.

Where’s Waldo?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

Shake it up is all that we know,
Using bodies up as we go
I’m waking up to fantasy
The shades all around aren’t the colors we used to see
Broken ice still melts in the sun
And ties that are broken can often be one again,
We’re soul alone and soul really matters to me…Take a look around

You’re out of touch, I’m out of time (time)
But I’m out of my head when you’re not around

— Hall and Oates, “Out of Touch”

Recently I spoke to a group of freshmen who were being inducted into several different honors societies on campus. My theme was the quest for excellence. As I have few opportunities now to actually interact with the rising generation, I was eager to say something that would have some resonance with students over twenty-five years younger than I am. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to do this would be to draw upon the idea of “the quest” as represented in history, mythology, and popular culture. Intoxicated by this IDEA and fortified by the power of Google, I put together a brief series of images that I believed were iconic representations of “the quest”: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jason and the Argonauts, the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Indiana Jones, the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, and Mulder and Scully. I gave my talk; I got a few laughs from the audience, and left the stage thinking that it went better than I had hoped.

During the reception after the induction ceremony, a student approached me and admitted that she has never been able to understand a thing that I say, including the presentation of which I had been so proud just minutes before. I was stunned. She was an honors student and reasonably bright – the type of student I work hard every day to attract to my institution and inspire—and I could not reach her. Suddenly I was awash again in the disappointment and frustration that I so well remember from my days as an assistant professor of history. And like any good denizen of the Age of Social Media, I jumped onto Facebook and asked my digital friends to tell me what I had missed. Surely, I thought, they would see the brilliance of my approach and depth of my commitment to being relevant to my students.

My bruised ego was soothed by several of my friends; and I thank them for it. However, a well-respected colleague who is also an award-winning teacher chided me for failing to use cultural reference points that actually come from the world experienced by my students, not the one I remember from the last millennium. I was indignant, firm in my belief that a truly intelligent person would know and understand the examples I had used – examples which surely rose above the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for popular culture today. Why, in my day…

My colleague was absolutely correct. I had dismissed the era inhabited by my students – i.e., NOW – as irrelevant and inferior to the Golden Epoch of my youth. I had closed my eyes, willingly, to a world that was continually and stubbornly remaking itself. I was not the teacher or mentor that my students deserve. Somehow, at the ripe old age of 43, I had transformed into an embittered old codger.

I used to joke that I became an historian because I understood the dead better than the living. I cannot laugh any longer. I see now that I must embark upon my own quest out of the realm of shades and back into the world of the living. I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I have to try. Jim Kirk and Indiana Jones would not have it any other way.