“This planet has – or rather, had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
In 1985, I retired from the Navy and moved to Maine, next to Mom, where I’d been raised. That was the year Halley’s comet passed by, a treat I enjoyed on my way home for nearly a week of November evenings.
It hung there, as though, had I hiked up the power line to the top of the hill over which it seemed parked, I could have reached out and touched it. News reports excitedly proclaimed it to have come SO CLOSE – only about 93 million miles. A chunk of ice, rock and dust about 6 miles in diameter, with a tail some hundred million miles long, looking, from where I stopped each night to watch, like a baseball hit for a home run into deep center field, leaving a three-foot trail of dust.
Chinese astronomers first recorded its passage in 240 B.C., but it was almost 2,000 years before a fellow named Edmond Halley figured out it was the same comet, coming around every 76 years or so. Unfortunately, he was not here to see his prediction come true, but in 1758, right on schedule, it reappeared.
It came by in 1910, the year my dad was born. That also was the year Mark Twain departed, just as the old journalist had predicted. He and the comet had arrived together in 1835.
One of my professors told me a lifetime is about 50 years. Longer than that is “the way we’ve always done it.” Less, and we can remember the change. That is why young people do not understand why we seniors are bugged about things they do not worry about.
My grandchildren have never known a time when they were not able to watch movies on personal, handheld, devices. They cannot imagine life without texting and movies on their telephone, or a time when we traveled to our moon, guided by computers less powerful than those they hold now in their hands.
I lie in bed, this early morning, putting down some of these thoughts with my fingers, on a tablet barely larger than the hand with which I hold it – but I remember well the feel of a No. 2 Eberhard Faber pencil – two pieces of wood holding a sliver of graphite, topped with a rubber eraser our teachers would not allow us to use.
The Douglas Adams quote I mentioned at the start of this reverie references past tense because, in Adams’ tale, Earth was destroyed to make way for an interstellar bypass. That’s what happens when your home gets in the way of progress, and there are little green pieces of paper to be moved.
A decade or so ago I read that we already know everything there is or will be to know. Discovering is really remembering.
When we still lived in caves, the writer said, we knew about people riding in containers with no visible means of propulsion. I wonder whether we knew also the consequences of our dependency on those self-propelled vehicles.
I have a granddaughter who likes history; I would like to sit with her in a dark field in late 2061, maybe early 2062, when Halley’s comet next passes this planet. She’ll be about 62 then – nearly the age I am now. Maybe she’ll point it out to her grandkids, and note how large is the ocean of space, and how small their place in it.
And how “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t really all that long at all.
And how sometimes we need pause to think whether moving around small green pieces of paper is important enough to destroy the planet – especially because, on the whole, it isn’t the small green pieces of paper that are unhappy.
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