In the opening scene of “My Favorite Martian”, the technical mojo of Caltech/JPL/NASA comes mano a mano with the ultimate objective, Martian rock One-One-Niner. After conquering 352 million miles of space, the fictional Mars lander runs out of power just as it rolls up to its target. As the scene wraps, the voice of Mission Control is heard rationalizing the 5 years and $3 trillion dollars that were spent. We saw lots of nice little rocks along the way, the voice intones, so what does it matter if we came up short of the big one. The titles roll, the camera pans upward, and a bustling Martian metropolis comes into view.
Rocks like One-One-Niner are a lot more interesting than you might think, even if you are not geologically inclined. Rocks have been part of life, both metaphorically and concretely, for a very long time. Clement of Alexandria wrote of a fellow named Simon, born around 1 B.C. It seems that Simon was hanging out with a Jewish carpenter who decided to change this humble fisherman’s name to Peter. Wisely, Simon went along with it. The name comes from the Greek “petra”, meaning “rock”. Simon, aka St. Peter, went on to become a legendary example of leadership and devotion.
Since those days there have been many noteworthy rocks, including a wrestler/movie star (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a movie about a prison (“The Rock”, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage) and even a household pet. There are numerous versions of “Rock of Ages” , including a movie (which Tom Cruise should be ashamed of), and a song title for both a Christian hymn (1775 by Reverend Augustus Toplady) and a rock and roll song (1983 by Def Leppard). Without rock there would be no rock and roll, and Freddie Mercury would have nothing to do to you.
The metaphorical rock stands not only for something that is solid and dependable, it also conjures a quality of perseverance. Hard working genius Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In this context, the rock is the stubborn object that challenges us, torments us, and can only be moved a minuscule amount with great effort.
Poet John Borling, author of “Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton” knows a thing or two about stubborn objects and perseverance. Gen X’ers are probably visualizing a disheveled, bookish looking gentleman comfortably housed in a mid-range hotel sipping cabernet while tapping out poems on his laptop. Boomers will recognize “Hanoi Hilton” as a euphemism for Hoa Lo, the notorious North Vietnamese prison and torture mill. Borling and his fellow POW’s, including the late Senator John McCain, painstakingly developed a tapping-based code system that allowed them to communicate; they were able to preserve their sanity, share vital information about the guards and the prison, and produce poetry which they committed to memory in case any of them survived.
Borling did survive, returning home to America at the end of the war in 1973. In 2004, he ran for office as a moderate Republican, setting his sights on a vacant Senate seat in Illinois. He was ejected from that race in the primary. The ultimate winner was a Democratic newcomer, a fellow by the name of Barack Obama.
Still heeding the call of his inner social activist, Borling next campaigned to require a year of mandatory military service for all young American men. For a country that hadn’t forgotten the smoking ruins of the draftee-staffed Vietnam War, this idea had very little appeal. From capture to political defeat to social rejection, Borling couldn’t be blamed for feeling a bit like a serial failure.
Why would a battle-hardened military man choose to write poetry in prison? Borling cited an English class he had taken at the Air Force Academy, one that introduced him to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The protagonist, condemned by the gods to spend all eternity rolling a rock up a hill, always falls just short of the top. By recognizing and accepting the futility of his life, Sisyphus finds peace. Borling adds that even those of us with the strength of will to muscle our rock to the top are always confronted with another hill. Camus and Borling agree that the essence of life is really just pushing rocks.
When I was in graduate school at Caltech, I shared an office with a much younger student. Both of us had part-time jobs, significant others, and a challenging academic program. One morning, my office-mate came in, dropped a stack of books on his desk, and with a deep sigh said, “I can’t wait until I finish my PhD and life gets simpler.” At that very moment, the insight of Sisyphus hit me like a ton of rocks.
Life really is all about pushing rocks. You can accept it and have peace, fight it and become frustrated, or give up and descend into despair. The unseen risk in quitting is that you may be only a heartbeat away from your own personal One-One-Niner. Thomas Edison summed it up thusly - “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.