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trainor-biz-cardThis is about visiting my great-great grandfather, Thomas Trainor, dead since 1876 and reposing in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. Thomas and a friend bought the Trainor family plot, two graves wide, in 1852. It now lies roughly in the center of what’s called “Old Calvary.”

Today Calvary is the largest cemetery in the country, with more than three million occupants, and familiar to New York drivers as a vast forest of monuments and headstones flanking the intersection of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I-278) and the Long Island (I-495) Expressway.

Thomas was himself one of seven children. His parents were Thomas (or John) and Hanna (née Hockey) Trainor, said to be of Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland. He was born in 1804 and sailed to Boston at the height of the 1819 typhus epidemic at age 15, accompanied by his uncle, also a Trainor. By one account the uncle died soon after arriving, but by another he lived long enough to marry and widow the old aunt Thomas buried first in the family plot.

There is a gap in the record between the time Thomas arrived as a teen and when he came to own land in New York (around Poughkeepsie), meet Mary Ann, and establish the saddle and carriage-building business described on his business card above. The family home, we know, was at 228 East 122nd Street in Harlem, at a time when most of the city’s roads were still dirt. (Here’s the Streetview today.) His business, at 124 West Broadway, was at the corner of Duane on the east edge of what is now Tribeca. Mary Ann (née McLaughlin), did the carriage interiors, when she not also producing children.

What I found at Calgary, after a long search (having been given bad instructions at first by an otherwise helpful guy at the cemetery office), was this headstone:

trainor-headstoneClearly this is the Trainor plot: Section 1W, Range 6, Plot U. (Nice of some stones to have that engraving. Most don’t.) And I know Margaret Mayer was Thomas’s youngest daughter, known to us kids growing up as Grandma Searls’ “Aunt Mag.” Here she is:

auntmagGrandma Searls was the third of five children, all daughters, of Henry Roman Englert and Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, the fourth of Thomas and Mary Ann’s seven kids. Henry was the head of New York’s Steel and Copperplate Engravers Union, and the family home was in the South Bronx at 742 East 142nd Street. When Kitty died at age 39, Aunt Mag became a second mom to Kitty’s four surviving daughters.

But who was Grace F. Adams? And why are there no dates, or names other than those two, neither of whom died with the Trainor surname?

Some answers came when I got home and looked through the typed records of Catherine Burns, daughter of Florence, Grandma Searls’ younger sister. These were scanned by Catherine’s son Martin (my second cousin), and shared along with many other pictures I’ve put up on the Web.

There I discovered that Grace Adams is the granddaughter of Aunt Mag, who was born in 1855, two years before her mother died, and lived for another 89 years. She married Joseph Mayer in 1881, the year before Grandma Searls (née Ethel F. Englert) was born. (Joseph, who died in 1927, is buried elsewhere at Calgary.) Mag and Joseph’s daughter Frances, born in 1888, married George Shannon. (After Geroge died in 1923, she married John Heslin, who also predeceased her without fathering more children.) Frances and George produced Gertrude Doris Shannon and Grace Shannon. Gertrude, born in 1918, married Thomas Doonan in 1937, and had four kids: Thomas Jr., Margaret, Rosemary and John. They and their descendants are third, fourth and fifth cousins of mine.

But the connection to the headstone is Grace Shannon, born in 1919. She married an Adams (first name unknown), and produced two daughters, Candice and Denise, born respectively in 1953 and 1957. They are third cousins of mine (sharing great-great grandparents). Candice married Joseph Flasch and produced two known children, Joseph and Shannon Marie.

So Grace Shannon is the Grace F. Adams on the headstone. Since died in 1966 at just 45 years old, and the headstone (or monument, in the parlance of the cemetery business) is clearly of relatively recent vintage, I am guessing it was was placed by one or both of Grace F. Adams’ daughters. I am also guessing that they knew this was a Trainor plot, with lots of Trainors in it, but didn’t want to go into the details, especially since some of them are hazy. Hence the names of the two ancestors they knew and cared most about, under the Trainor heading.

I’m saying all this in hope that one or more of them will find this post and fill us in.

What the only headstone at the Trainor plot understates is that bodies of nine family members (and perhaps one other) are stacked in just two graves:

all-the-trainor-deadTheir order of burial also recalls a series of tragedies. First in the ground was an elderly aunt, the widow of the uncle who came over with Thomas from Ireland. Next was Thomas’s wife, Mary Ann, age 36. Then went three of their seven children: 1 year old Thomas Jr., 16 year old Charles, and then 31 year old Hannah Crowley. Not included is an infant daughter, Ella, buried elsewhere.

The story of Charles is family legend, but accounts differ. They agree that he ran away at 16, twice, to fight in the Civil War. One report says he was killed carrying a flag. Another says he was wounded and died in an army hospital. By that story he was visited by his father after a search made long and difficult by Charles’s decision to register under an assumed name that only he and the Union Army knew. When Thomas found Charles, the boy was almost unrecognizable behind a full red beard. According to that story (the one in which Charles wasn’t killed in battle), the doctors promised Thomas that his boy would be home by Christmas. There seems to be agreement that Charles died on Thanksgiving Day, and arrived home in a box. Grandma Searls (a niece of Charles through his sister Catherine) said Charles arrived home on Christmas Day.

All family accounts agree that Charles was planted in the Trainor plot at Calvary. The Cemetery records do not agree. Instead it lists Hannah Kennedy as an occupant of the Trainor plot. According to that listing, she was Charles’ age when she died the same year. So there are three possibilities here. The first is that Hannah was a family acquaintance who just happened to die at the same age as Charles and in the same year. The second is that the cemetery made a mistake in recording the burial. The third is that both are buried there, and only Hannah’s burial is recorded. I favor the second possibility because it’s the most plausible. Today we’d call it a data entry error.

When I asked the guy at the Calvary office how burying stacked bodies in a single grave worked in an age when they didn’t use vaults, he said something like, “They just dig down until they find the top of the coffin below. Or they stop when they find remains or what they suspect are remains, and set the next coffin on top.”

What they find, if a coffin is absent, would depend on the soil. In the red-dirt South, where there is a lot of acid in the soil, I am told there tends to be nothing left after a few years but buttons and shoelace grommets. But in other soils, such as in France, where they relocated all the remains in all of Paris’s cemeteries into quarries under the city (now called the catacombs) from the late 1700s to mid 1800s, all the bones stay in perfect shape. (I visited there in ’10. Amazing place.)

When I was in Letterkenny a few years ago, I thought I would try to find some trace of the Trainors who stayed behind. Turns out Trainor is a fairly common name that roughly means laborer, or strong man, in the original Gaelic Thréinfhir. There are also many variants, including Armstrong. So I took my curiosity to the Parochial House across from St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny, and was rebuked by one of the priests there. Didn’t I know the Irish Catholic Church was underground in the early 1800s, while all of Ireland was under England’s thumb and enduring one famine and plague after another? In other words, “Don’t bother askin’.”

He did at least point me to a graveyard near Old Town, across the River Swilly. It was in use two centuries ago, when Great-great Grandpa Thomas was growing up there, and might contain some Trainors or Hockeys, he said. When we went by, however, it was raining heavily, and there was a funeral underway — one of the first there in a long time, we were told by one of those attending. So we gave up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve looked a bit into Donegal genealogy records for evidence of Trainors, or Thréinfirs, and found nothing. But the Trainors may not have been from Letterkenny, or Donegal. I’ve heard variously that they were from County Monaghan, or Cork. A search here brings up 85,651 birth records for Thomas Trainor in Monaghan. Seems mighty high, but maybe I’m doing it wrong.

Last year I took my wife on what she called “a really bad idea for a date” (as was the Letterkenny side trip): visiting the graves of other relatives on Grandma’s father’s side:

    1. Christian Englert (my great-great grandfather, same generation as Thomas Trainor), his wife Jacobina (née Rung) Englert, and five others in the next generation, including four who died young (aged 33, 29, 1 and 10 months). Only three of those are marked on the headstone. Here they are in roughly 1869.
    2. Christian’s son, Henry Roman Englert, his wife Kitty Trainor (one of the sibs not buried in Calvary), Henry’s second wife (Teresa Antonelli), and three from the next generation, all of whom died young and are stacked into three graves in one plot below a small wedge-shaped headstone that identifies Henry alone.

I couldn’t find a third grave site, possibly not marked, containing Henry’s brother Andrew and (stacked atop him) a daughter or niece, Annie Englert. This one may not be marked.

Martin tells me that the four Englert sisters and others of their generation would often visit the graves of their mother and siblings, even before their father, Henry, died in 1943. I am sure that none of those graves would have been marked. It also seems strange to me that they (or somebody) only marked Henry’s after he died, without mention of the five others below.

Anyway, I’ve shared documents and pictures of Trainors here, Englerts here, and Dwyers (Martin’s family) here.

All of this inquiry also has me thinking about what cemeteries are for. Clearly the idea of organizing the dead under plaques, stones and monuments is to honor and host those who miss them, or who wish at least to respect them, as I did for all those piled-up Trainors last Saturday.

I suppose the original purpose of burial was to hold the stink down, or to recycle nutrients where the process can’t be seen. (Beats watching vultures and less grand creatures do the job.) Whatever it was, it seems kind of wasteful and obsolete at this point.

Over dinner a few years ago, Kevin Kelly told me that nobody we know, including ourselves, will be remembered in a thousand years — or even a hundred or two. Each of us at most is an Ozymandias, or a Shelley, who wrote his famous sonnett before drowning at 29. Here it is:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I was the traveler on Saturday. New York was, for that day, my antique land. Around the Trainor graves Calvary seemed boundless, though hardly bare, covered by ranks of headstones, statues and thick granite houses for the above-ground dead: lifeless things, all. Lone it also seemed, since I saw not one other pedestrian (and just one other car) during the hours I wandered there, on a day that could hardly have been more sunny, mild and welcoming.

All of it seemed to certify, as does the hand of Ozymandias’ sculptor, the full depth of departure: that all will be forgotten, and only stone pedestals for absent memories will remain.

The job of the living, I believe, is to leave the world better than we found it. That’s all. Whether we do that job or not, we are still obliged to leave. That’s a lesson I learned from my mother, after she died:

So many times I think about something I’d love to share with Mom or Pop, then remember they’re gone. Often I hear Mom’s voice: firm, instructive and loving as ever. Give to the living, she says. That’s what love is for. Her lesson: Death makes us give love to the living. She was a teacher. Still is.

And so are they all, even if now we know next to nothing about them.


ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

The Giant ZeroMany years ago, Craig Burton shared the best metaphor for the Internet that I have ever heard, or seen in my head. He called it hollow sphere: a giant three-dimensional zero. He called it that because a sphere’s geometry best illustrates a system in which every end, regardless of its physical location, is functionally zero distance away from every other end. Across the nothing in the Net’s hollow sphere, every point can “see” every other point, and connect to it, as if distance were not there. And at no cost.

It doesn’t matter that the Net’s base protocol, TCP/IP, is not perfect, that there are costs and latencies involved in the operation of connections and routers between end points — and that many people in the world still do not enjoy the Net’s graces. What matters is that our species’ experience of the Net, and of the world it creates, is of zero distance and cost. You and I can publish posts like this one, or send emails to each other, or even have live video conference calls, with little if any regard for distance and cost.

Our experience of this is as essential to our future as the discovery of language and fire was to our ancestors. The Net has already become as essential to human agency — the capacity to act with effect in the world — as the wheel and movable type. We are not going to un-discover it.

Yes, companies and governments can control or access to the Net, and sphincter what passes through it; but it’s too late for anybody or anything to keep our species from knowing what it’s like to be zero distance apart at zero cost. We now have that experience, and we will use it to change life on Earth. Hopefully for the better.

The Giant Zero of the Net has an analogue with the physical world, whose gravity pulls us all toward an invisible center we can’t see but know is there. As with the Net’s zero, we live on Earth’s surface. The difference is that, on the Earth’s zero, distance matters. So does the inverse square law. Sound, sight and radio waves fade across distances. We need to be close to hear and see each other. Not so on the Net.

The Giant Zero is also the title of my next book. Until then, if you dig the metaphor, you might also source World of Ends or NewClues, both of which are co-written by David Weinberger. For now I just want to post this so I can source something simple about The Giant Zero in one link.

HT to @dweinberger: every hyperlink travels across the zero. And thanks to Hugh McLeod for the image above. Way back in 2004, I asked him to draw me the Internet, and that’s what he did. I haven’t seen anything better since.

Here is how New York looked through my front window yesterday at 3:51am, when I was packing to fly and drive from JFK to LAX to Santa Barbara:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 7.37.38 AM

I shoveled a path to the street four times: the first three through light and fluffy snow, and the fourth through rain, slush and a ridge of myucch scraped in front of the driveway by a plow. By the time we got to JFK, all the pretty snow was thick gray slush. It was a good time to get the hell out. Fortunately, @United got us onto the first flight of the day to LAX . (We had been booked on a later flight. To see the crunch we missed, run the FlightAware MiseryMap for JFK, and watch 2 February.)

The flight to LAX was quick for a westbound one (which flies against the wind): a little over five hours. For half the country, the scene below was mostly white. This one…

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.14.24 AM

… of the ridge country between Beaver Dam Lake and Columbus, Wisconsin, said far more about snow than the white alone suggested. Those corrugated hills are grooves scraped onto the the landscape by the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, during which a local lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet crept steadily northeast to southwest, finally melting into lakes and rivers only about ten thousand years ago — a mere blink in geologic time.

A few minutes later came the snow-covered Mississippi, skirting Prairie du Chein, on the Wisconsin-Iowa border:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.14.39 AM

Then, a couple hours later, we flew straight across the Grand Canyon, which has a horizontal immensity one tends to miss when gawking at the canyon’s scenic climaxes from the ground. One of my favorite features there is the Uinkaret Volcanic Field, which poured a syrup of lava over the Canyon’s layer cake of 290-1700-year old rock. That happened about 70,000 years ago, and still looks fresh:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.13.47 AM

(BTW, two of the three pictures at that last link, in Wikipedia, are ones I shot on earlier trips. The third is by NASA.)

Gliding into LAX, we got a nice view of downtown…

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.13.30 AM

… where the temperature was 76°.

When we got home to Santa Barbara it was about 70° and looked like this, out my home office door:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 7.40.01 AM

It wasn’t the prettiest sunset we’ve had here (this one I shot on 22 January was spectacular), but I’ve rarely seen a more welcome scenic bookend for a cross-country trip.

Got big rain today in Santa Barbara, and across all of California, or so it appears:

Rain in CaliforniaRainfall records were broken. As expected, there were mudslides. One friend going to Malibu was smart to avoid the Pacific Coast Highway.

The drought persists, of course. We’ll need many more storms like this to make up for the water shortage.

Two things the news won’t mention, though.

One is the dropped wildfire danger. We care about those here. Two of the last four wildfires took out over 300 homes. One came within a dozen homes of where I’m sitting now.

The other is the greening of the hills. When California gets a good winter soaking, it turns into Ireland — at least until the fire season starts again.

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Unless you look out the window.

When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:

baffin Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly, these glaciers and mountains…


While I’m sure there are good maps of Greenland somewhere (Nuuk? Denmark?), Google, Bing and the rest are no help. Nor are the fat world atlases. Here’s an island the size of a continent, with lots of Fjords and islands and glaciers and mountains and stuff, many of which were surely named by the natives or visitors, and there ain’t much.

But:::: good news.

There, out my dirty and frosty window over the trailing edge of the wing, was the same long deep valley I had seen seven years before. Only now I was equipped to learn what was what, and where. My GPS and the plane’s map — there on a screen mounted in the back of the seat in front of me — agreed: we flying over the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, most arctic and least populated territory.

The valley, I discovered on the ground, is called Akshayuk Pass. It connects the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords, bisecting the peninsula. Imagine a Yosemite Valley with a floor of glaciers draining into Arctic rivers, flanked for seventy miles by dozens of Half Domes and El Capitans — crossing the Arctic Circle, through an island where the last Ice Age still hasn’t ended.

On the west side of the pass is the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland inside the forbidding and spectacular Auyuittuq National Park. Wikipedia explains, “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.'” Nobody lives there. Hiking across it ranges from difficult to impossible. The only way to fully take it in is from the sky above, like I found myself doing right then. It was thrilling.

On the first flight over, I became fascinated by a mountain, just south of the Penny Ice Cap, that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here from the 2007 trip:

asgard So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again two days ago. Here’s how it looked this time:

agard2 Now that I could research the scenery, I found it was Mt. Asgard, named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to amazing photos by Artur Stanisz, shot from Turner Glacier, which Asgard overlooks in the shot above. Fun fact: one of the great James Bond ski chase stunts was shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)

So now we have all these albums:

Which join these others on Flickr:

A digression on the subject of aviation…

A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shade my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.

Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were very few: maybe eight, out of dozens of windows in the economy cabin of our Boeing 777. Everybody was watching a movie, eating, sleeping or otherwise paying no attention to the scenery outside.

No wonder a cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and failed movies.

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Many of our ancestors would have given limbs for the privilege of seeing what’s on the other side of our window shades in the sky. Glad all we need is to give up our cynicism about flying.

That line came to me a few minutes ago, as I looked and read through the latest photographic blog posts by Stephen Lewis in his blog, Bubkes). This one…

Stephen Lewis photo… titled Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile, is accompanied by richly detailed text, including this:

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden were uprooted several years ago.  in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby…

Nothing is permanent, but in this case the more durable feature is the grandmother and her friendly face — the face of the place, while she lasts.

Also arresting is Corn Stalks, a Plateau, the Black Sea, and the Horizon:


It’s a place that calls to mind face in its verb form. A synonym might be to meet, or to confront. We face a challenge, an opportunity, a problem, success, failure, or the world. Things face us as well, but not always directly. Three of the four things in the photo are mostly hidden by the first, but far more vast and open. Also flat. Horizons may feature mountains, but they are horizontal: flat and wide.

We are walking and running animals that work best in the horizontal. Our eyes shift more easily to left and right than to up and down. Our stereoscopic vision and hearing also locate best in the horizontal spread from one here to many theres.

Our species dispersed from Africa toward gone horizons, mostly along coasts long since drowned by melting ice caps. The Black Sea has changed greatly in spread and shape throughout human history, and may have reached its present height in a deluge through the Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways.

The view on the path in the photo is framed between the vertical blinders of dry corn stalks at the edges of fields of unseen vastness. (Corn fields have always been both beautiful and a tiny bit creepy to me, ever since I got a bit lost when wandering as a kid into a cornfield somewhere, with no clear direction out other than the sound of distant voices.)

Between the last paragraph and this one, Stephen posted another photo, titled Shabla, Bulgaria: Seawards and Kitchenwards, taken on the shore of the Black Sea:


The subject is mostly boats and ramps. In the foreground are stairs and wood railings, two of the many literal and figurative framings, none quite horizontal, in a vertical photo with dimensions we call “portrait.” On the face of this Bulgarian shore, one ear is the sea itself. All the ramps face land and sea. To them the camera is an unseen visitor from another dimension.

While seeing and hearing are mostly horizontal (our ears as well as our eyes are aligned with the horizon), eating is vertical: food is something we “eat up” and “get down.” So is nutrition: we “raise” crops and cattle.”

In Stephen’s photos, things have faces too. Some are literal, such as in Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague:

ww-i-grave-prague-copy-2 The photo puts in contrast the irony of cemetery “monuments” (as gravestones are now called), commemorating stuff nobody alive remembers, for an audience a living performer might round to zero. Under the subhead The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead, Stephen writes,

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life’s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.

Last month I visited the graves of relatives three generations and more ahead of mine, at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, and reported on that visit in Lives of the Dead. While some graves at Woodlawn yearned toward the kind of extravagance Stephen found in Vinohrady, my late kinfolk leaned in the opposite direction, marking little or nothing of who they planted there. To my knowledge, I was the first to surface (at those last two links) twenty Englerts, Knoebels and others whose faces in death are carpets of mowed grass.

And who knows how long anything will last on the Web? My old blog, on which I wrote from 1999-2007, survives by the grace of a friend, and its blogroll is a near-cemetery of rotting links.

Every thing faces a future for as long as we grace it with expectation of use, appreciation or some other goodness. Why else save anything?

So I’m glad Stephen keeps putting these photos up, and enlarging them so well with prose. Here’s a list of other photos in his series, posted since the last time I last blogged his series:

It’s a wonderful gallery. Enjoy.

“Influence” is hot shit these days. Linkedin 0cde531has been making a big deal about it; and it seems to be working, according to Dharmesh Shaw, a Linkedin Influencer:

First of all, there’s the sheer power and reach of the platform. When I write on my personal blog (which is reasonably popular) an article will get roughly 5,000-10,000 views. If it turns out to be popular and is widely shared on social media, that number can spike to 50,000+ views. That’s pretty good. It makes my day when it happens.

But let’s compare that to how my content performs on the LinkedIn platform. I’ve posted 30 articles as an Influencer. The average number of views across those articles? 123,000!

The most popular article I’ve written has received 1.2 million views and 4,200 comments (whew!) That’s heady stuff.

And it’s also fun. I enjoy the opportunity to write about a broader range of topics. Obviously I write about issues that are important to startups, but I also get to write about building a company you love, andpersonal branding, and even extremely broad themes like the qualities of truly confident people.

I’m sure the same leverage also comes through publishing in Medium, Forbes, The Atlantic, HuffPo and other big Web publishers that pump lots of content. I’m happy for Dharmesh and other writers in those pubs. Hell, I may end up writing for one or more of them as well. Who knows. But meanwhile, as a writer, I have three problems with them.

First is that they’re all silos. This was unavoidable in in the physical world — every publisher needed their own platform; but on the Net and the Web, we already have a platform for all of us. We shouldn’t have to only write for the big publisher to be heard. This is why I’d rather write here, where I’ve got my own press and I’m free and fully in control, rather than in one of these big silos.

Second is that they don’t pay me. When one does, I’ll be glad to write for them.

Third is noise. A lot of stuff published on these sites is damn good. But all of the publishers are pumping as much as they can in front of as many eyeballs they can for as many advertisers as they can. Which is cool (provided the advertising is of the old-fashioned brand kind, and not of the surveillance-fed kind). But the volume of it tends to make everything into Snow on the Water. I also have little faith that the links won’t rot.

But here’s the bigger thing: being useful has more leverage, and more substance, than just being influential. In fact, I think being useful might be the most highly leveraged human virtue, other than love. Without it, we wouldn’t have civilization. And being useful makes you influential anyway.

So here are two ways to make yourself useful: tag eveything you can and use permissive Creative Commons licenses. Lets start with the effects of these things, for me, and work back to causes.

Look at these links:


All of them feature a photo by me. I did nothing to put those there beyond tagging uploaded photos “anthropocene” and licensing them to only require photo credit (“Attribution CC BY“). So, whenever somebody writes about the Anthropocene Epoch (a durable topic that deeply matters), and wants to use a photo without any copyright friction, there is a high chance that one of my photos tagged “anthropocene” will illustrate the piece, with credit. Same thing happens with:

Photos generously licensed also tend to show up in Wikipedia, by way of Wikimedia Commons, which has a palette of graphic elements that writers can raid when editing Wikipedia articles. As of today 490 of my photos are in Wikimedia Commons. Many (perhaps most) of them also show up in Wikipedia, again with credit. I did nothing to put any of those photos in either Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia. I simply made them useful.

It helps, of course, to have dozens of thousands of photos up on the Web, but that matters less than the motivation behind them — the same motivation one can put behind anything: make it useful.

Two more bits of advice: say interesting stuff, and link a lot. We can see the effects of both in Echovar‘s blog post, Mind the Gap: You are as You are Eaten. In it he takes something I said, then follows three links in it to three different blog posts, writing deeply about all of them in ways I had not anticipated.

Were those posts influential, useful or both? Probably both, but either way, useful came first.

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Christopher Lydon at the AthanaeumThere’s a challenge going around Facebook: to name ten books that have changed your life.

So I’ve thought about my own, and kept a running list here in draft form. Now that it’s close enough to publish, methinks, here they are, in no order, and not limited to ten (or to Facebook) —

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstloy. I’ve read and re-read it many times, though not in the last two decades. I got turned onto it by this broadcast on WBAI in New York, back in 1970.
  • Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. I sound my barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world. More here.
  • Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, who gets my vote for the best nonfiction writer of all time. I’ve read and love all of McPhee’s books, but his geology series — Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains and Assembling California — turned me on in a huge way to geology, the Earth and the long view of time. All are collected, with one more added, in Annals, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. The best of the series, by the way, is Rising From the Plains, just for the stories of its lead characters, geologist David Love and his parents, living the pioneer life in central Wyoming early in the last century. Great stuff.
  • Rabbit Run and the rest of the Rabbit series, by John Updike. While many of Updike’s subjects bore or annoy me (and his frequent descriptions of sex, all as clinically detailed as a Wyeth paintings, fail as porn), the quality of his writing is without equal, imho.
  • The Bible. I was raised on it and read lots of it, back in my early decades. So I can’t deny its influence. The King James is my fave, having a beauty that others lack.
  • Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, by Michael Polanyi. Less famous than his brother Karl, and nearly quote-proof. (The one exception: “We know more than we can tell.”) But deep. Studied the crap out of him in college, thanks to the obsessions of one philosophy professor.
  • Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff. All of George’s books changed me. My vote for his best is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Explains convincingly a shitload about politics and much else.
  • The Book of Knowledge and Grollier encyclopedias. We had those in our house when I was a kid, and I read them constantly.
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Call me hooked. Typee rocks too.
  • Nature and other essays (notably Self-reliance) by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hit me between the eyes in my college years. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events… Without Emerson, there would have been no Linux for me. Also no ProjectVRM, and probably no Cluetrain either. Also from that century, Hawthorne and Poe.
  • Websters New Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning the one my parents gave me when I went away to high school at age 15 in 1962. It’s one of the most worn and marked up books I have.
  • Huckleberry Finn, and many other works of Mark Twain. Read most of them in my teens.
  • Our Dumb World, by The Onion. The funniest book ever written. Please update it, Onion folks.
  • Dave Berry Slept Here: a Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry. His funniest book.
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. My vote for Bellow’s best. Conquered people tend to be witty.
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Blew my mind.
  • How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. Explains so much I never saw or knew before, especially about infrastructure and code.
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. I also saw him speak when I was in college. Very moving.
  • Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert. I like the original better than any of the later sequels and prequels.
  • The Foundation Series, by Isaac Azimov. I only like the original trilogy, which blew my mind when I read it, many years ago. Likewise…
  • The entire James Bond series, by Ian Flemming. Knocked them off in a college summer session. Pure escapism, but it helped my writing. Flemming was good. Bonus link: Alligator, a parody of Bond novels by Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith of the Harvard Lampoon. In it MI5’s front is a car dealership. If any actual customers show up, they are taken to the back and then “politely, but firmly, shot.”
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto. Co-writing it changed my life. Simple as that.
  • Many books by Thomas C. Hinkle, which I read as a child hiding away from the bitter and humiliating experiences of failing to compete in academics, sports and everything else at school. The books weren’t great literature, but they were great escapes. All were adventures involving heroic animals on the prairie, where both Hinkle and my mother grew up. (He was from Kansas and she was from Napoleon, North Dakota, about which it was said “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”) When I got older my interest in prairie settings transferred to…
  • Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas and Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, who wrote in the anglicized idioms of Sioux and Cheyenne. Amazing stuff. Honorable mentions in this same vein: Black Elk Speaks, by John Niehardt and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Not sure why, but there has always been a warmth in our family toward native Americans. And maybe that’s why I also like…
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card. The natives in this one have a heroic transcendence (as do others). Got turned on to these by our youngest son, who has read at least ten times the number of books in his short life than I’ve read in my long one.
  • The Poltergeist, by William G. Roll. I worked for Bill at the Psychical Research Foundation, which hung off the side of Duke in the late ’70s. His work opened my mind in many ways. Great times there too.
  • Other authors that run in the credits of my life: Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Conrad, Yates, Kipling, Tennyson, Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, Wallace Stevens, Jeffers, Steinbeck, Delmore Schwartz, Card, e.e. cummings, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Salinger, Mailer, Barth. (Thanks to Interleaves and Robert Teeter for listing Harold Bloom‘s Western Canon, which helped with the list above.)

Ah, and the photo at the top is of our good friend Christopher Lydon, taken while he was giving us newcomers a tour of the Boston Athenæum, which we immediately joined and will love forever. Besides being a great lover of books, Chris is a broadcasting legend whose Radio Open Source is a treasure that spills weekly onto the Net and WBUR.

 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)

Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.

Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.

Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.)  It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.

Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.

The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.

  • Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
  • Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
  • Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
  • Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.

While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.

At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.

My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.

“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.

It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.

Bonus linkage on Mother’s Day: Jean Russell‘s Thrivable (@Thrivable). Here’s the philosophy, the book, the blog, and herself aka @NurtureGirl. She and her colleagues are doing the Leading Work here.

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