Friday, February 15, 2008

What Do You See?

There are a few great men and women who see in their mind’s eye what the rest of us cannot. They see the world as oddly deficient; lacking in that one thing that would make life simpler, better, more tolerable, or esthetically more pleasing. They not only see what’s missing, they try to make the world whole. Some are successful, some are not, but the ones that do manage to fill the gap actually affect change in the world.

Some of this change is not recognized immediately. The arts are particularly notorious for not recognizing the worth of its contributors until after their passing. Van Gough’s genius was not well received until after his death. The price of his passion is well known. For many painters, their notoriety and fame only come with the “death premium.” There are a few masters, Rembrandt for example – Bach & Mozart for others, that receive accolades, wealth and fame for their work, but even they could not anticipate the profound impact of their contribution on generations to come. This is not so unusual for the arts because despite the tangible nature of what is produced, the impact on society is very intangible. Defining how the arts might lift the quality of life itself is not an easy concept to grasp.

There are other more direct examples of filling the gap that are no less profound, but that are far more literal and contribute both to the aesthetic as well as the practical. Joseph B. Strauss, standing at the northernmost point of San Francisco watching the robust ferry traffic traversing the bay, envisioned a different solution. He had completed hundreds of small drawbridges before he lobbied for and was selected to be the primary engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge -- a project that imbued him with enough passion to take it from conception to completion and all the political folderol that comes with it. Each of his earlier bridges may have earnestly impacted local transportation and commerce while uniting communities, but none had more impact on society than the Golden Gate Bridge. So utterly deep was the homage paid to this project that it is considered the eighth wonder of the world.

Imagine yourself as Joseph Strauss on May 27, 1937 striding deliberately over that bridge on opening day, confident that with each step you had just changed the world. In my one tenuous link with history, my father-in-law walked down the center of the Golden Gate along with Joseph Strauss and with over 200,000 other people celebrating the completion of a modern marvel.

Alexander Graham Bell was devoted to his wife and his mother, both of whom were deaf. In an effort to make the world a more inclusive place he invented the telephone in 1876. Within ten years, telephones were in over 150,000 homes and businesses and adoption continued just as fast as they could string wire and produce phone sets. Bell’s company became the wildly successful forbearer of America’s largest communication company and hundreds of smaller enterprises that now bear his name.

Oddly enough, as the telephone became ubiquitous, Bell refused to have one in his office, laboratory or home. He didn’t like to be interrupted and resented the intrusion. Even more unusual, he insisted that his wife not be coddled with sign language, that she learn to get along and function in a hearing world. Bell saw how his invention had changed the world perhaps more objectively than anyone, and knew precisely to what extent he would allow it to change how he lived in it.

Most of us don’t think about these life-altering leaps of change that swirl about us. We simply accept them as common place without further thought to how the world was before. We just accept it as it is today without recognizing that yesterday the world wasn’t quite like this.

There were times when I am certain my own mother wished she were deaf. As is typical of young siblings growing up in the same household, my sister and I, on more than one occasion disagreed with each other. This of course is a polite euphemism for fighting. More often than not, we wanted to play with the same toys at the same time or sit in the same chair…at the same time. Our arguments nearly always raised the ambient noise level in the house to unacceptable levels. These less than serious transgressions were almost always dealt with in the same manner. We were sent to our rooms. This gave my mother a few minutes respite from the turmoil, and us a chance to turn our attentions to anything less contentious than each other.

As with any small children, our rooms were adequately filled with toys and like most toys they were based on grown up things like real cars, or real airplanes, or real kitchens, but they were toys. Thanks to the groundwork laid by Mr. Bell, one of the items I had in the bottom of my closet was a toy telephone set which consisted of two mostly plastic telephones, a roll of wire and a couple of batteries. Thanks also to Mr. Bell, his design was so simple that these toy phones worked just like the real thing.

On one such occasion when we had earned some quiet time in our rooms, I found solace in my toy telephones. The problem with telephones, however, is the need for Mr. Bell’s Watson to be on the other end to hear. With great mischief in mind, I peered out of my doorway and saw my sister down the hallway doing the same. Whatever argument had precipitated our separation was instantly forgotten. With Mom safely in the other room and with knowingly quiet glances, we conspired to conspire.

I affixed the wires to the phone sets and with some effort pushed one of the phones down hardwood floor in the hall toward Kathy’s room. She stealthily retrieved it. Within minutes we were whispering to one another over the phones, “Can you hear me?” “Yes. Can you hear me?” I don’t think that we ever stopped looking at one another. “Can you see what I’m holding?” “Yes. Can you see what I’ve got?” The phones were just another excuse to play, but this time we were quiet. I am sure that Mom never interrupted our “time out” because she knew exactly what we were up to.

I regret that I am not able to say that because of this experience I know that I have changed the world. I have not been gifted with the sight to see what others do not. I am not a scientist. I am not an inventor, an artist, or musical composer. Oh, I dabble, but I am not a serious dabbler. I do not think about things that are missing from my life and figure out ways not to miss them anymore. My path has been pretty traditional in that regard. However, I am thoughtful with a blank page.

My father-in-law is an outgoing fellow. He talked his way into dental school after a stint in the Navy, and later spent years talking and swapping stories with his patients. As a bright twenty year old with his whole life ahead of him, he joined the throng of celebrants as they walked over the Golden Gate Bridge on its very first day. He can’t tell you who he might have bumped into that day, but he is outgoing enough to have talked to a great many of the 200,000 pedestrians. Perhaps Joe Strauss was one of them. Perhaps, they exchanged pleasantries – a wink and a nod on that windy day. Perhaps there was a lingering smile and a mysterious look that Harold wasn’t able to interpret with certainty. Perhaps a stubborn puzzlement that could not be shaken. Perhaps.

The stress of building the Golden Gate Bridge nearly killed Joseph Strauss. He survived its opening day by only three years. He was finished professionally and retired to while the rest of his life away, but he knew exactly what he had accomplished. He could see it and feel it under his feet. In the same manner, Alexander Bell, knew what he had accomplished. He had a little longer to contemplate it, but he could see what he had done and he could see thousands of people adopt his work and make their own lives better.

We all are inventors to some degree. We all fashion our own lives. We make of them what we will. We impact our circle of friends and acquaintances and perhaps alter their course as well as our own. Unlike Bell and Strauss, we just can’t always see the impact our little drop makes when it hits the water’s surface.

Can you see the ripples?

© 2007 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved