The Axe

It is terribly frustrating when a serendipitous find refuses to work properly. Such were my thoughts as I attempted in vain to get the track-light to slide in it's channel.

I had just moved into a new apartment. It was quite a change for me, one which required a great many adjustments on my part. My divorce was far enough in the past that I could begin to think of the future, and the first thing on my agenda was a different place to live than the dump I had careened into after my wife left. Now I was earning enough that I could go in with two other friends on a better place. When I looked the place over, I immediately claimed the attic. It was a fascinating bit of architecture, and also provided a sense of territory that appealed to me. There were problems: it would be nightmarishly hot in the summer, it was completely unpainted, and there was only a single bulb lighting the area. I felt, though, that I could work something out regarding the temperature, and I looked forward to painting and decorating to my taste. The lack of lighting was a nuisance, but while exploring the nooks and crannies of my new domain, I discovered a potential solution to the lighting problem.

The building had housed many things; a private residence, a contractor's office, dental office, and now apartments. Each had left its mark on the place, in the form of forgotten impedimentia located in the attic (and what a vacated dentist's office leaves behind is beyond belief...). As I was disposing of this debris, I came upon a large box filled with, of all things, several sets of track-lights. Brilliant! thought I... Just the thing to really make the place look classy with indirect spots and such. All I needed to do was get them working.

Which brings me back to myself, squatting on the floor with track channels and spotlights strewn around me, trying vainly to get just one of the lamps to move along it's appointed groove. A friend of mine was assisting me, and he couldn't get them to operate either. He asked me to find a hammer or somesuch. Futilely I looked for such an object, but then noticed something I thought would serve just as well. I handed that to him, and he commenced to gently tapping on the mountings in an effort to get them moving.

It took several moments before the incongruity of what I had given him became apparent to both of us. I have a small rock collection. The core I inherited from my grandfather, and I have occasionally added to it over the years. It consists of some mineral specimens, a few fossils, and a few artifacts; arrowheads and such. One item is a stone axe-head, very recent in origin, no more than a few hundred years old. It is the final step in the evolution of such objects, being the heir to a vast tradition of stone tools. When I got it, I was moved to secure a stick, splint it, and tie it onto the head with thongs, so as to recreate the fully functional tool. It was this that I had handed to my friend, and I think it dawned on both of us more-or-less simultaneously that there was something wonderfully dissonant to the notion of repairing an example of the very latest in electrical conveniences with a neolithic hand-axe.

I never did complete the redecoration of that place, and I had to move yet again a year later; but I have often thought about the incident I have just described. It has become a kind of symbol for me of the sort of world we live in. We in the 20th century are balanced in a transition between 35,000 years of the earthy and technically simple sort of life humans have been familiar with; and a mysterious future which has begun, at least, with electricity, computers, and spaceflight. I suspect that in no other age will the hallmarks and tools of such widely divergent times be found so thoroughly blended with one another.

Transitions are usually difficult to traverse. My life at the time of which I speak was painful and confusing, as I struggled to learn how to trust again, to build a new career, to find a place to live. Our collective lives in this age are full of doubt and crisis, as we lurch through a seemingly endless array of intractable problems ranging from deteriorating environments to the realpolitik of the post-modern era.

I was not fully successful in bridging my transition, but with all the subsequent disappointments I have nevertheless endured, and find time today to marvel at the changes I have passed through which have enabled me to, among other things, write essays for immediate world-wide access from my desk at home. I suspect that human society will follow a similar path, and find a need to live with mistakes and missed opportunities on a global level. But I wonder, with a sense of awe and delight, what sort of unexpected things we will find ourselves capable of in the millenia to come.

May 31, 1997


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