Guest Blog: Christopher Hebert November 7, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
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When we met Margaret Lazarus Dean, we didn’t realize that her husband was a writer. We struck up an exchange with Margaret because she wrote a novel steeped in the space shuttle program, The Time It Takes to Fall. Read her guest post HERE. When we watched Atlantis lift off, that was Margaret’s head at the bottom of the frame in our photograph. Margaret’s husband, Christopher Hebert, was at home in Tennessee.
We’re pleased this week’s guest blogger is Christopher Hebert, a man we’ve never met and someone who expresses little interest in the space program but who has a wonderful take on what it means to be part of a writing couple. His piece connects with some other guest posts, like Eric Wassmerman’s (click HERE for that and his novel is just out) and also with some of our recent regular posts. (Click on the title to read “The Luck and Obligation of Writing,” “Writing Together, Writing Apart,” and “Writing Apart, Writing Together.”) In fact, we inadvertently adapted Hebert’s title a couple of times. Hebert’s guest post, though, stands on its own and beautifully captures the evolution of one writing couple’s habits. Also, for readers who are punctuation nerds, he uses the colon and the semicolon seamlessly.
Christopher Hebert is the author of the forthcoming The Boiling Season, due out in March from HarperCollins (pre-order now from Powell’s HERE). Hebert is an Antioch College alum who’s spent time in Guatemala and Mexico. He and Margaret earned their MFAs at the University of Michigan and teach at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
LOVE IN A WINNEBAGO: ON WRITING TOGETHER AND APART
The first conflict I remember having with my graduate school girlfriend had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with writing. It was the summer after our first year of graduate school. At the time, she was living in a wood-paneled, shag-carpeted efficiency we affectionately referred to as “the Winnebago.” A good part of the affection was relative; compared to me, she was living in splendor, enjoying not just a refrigerator she could access while standing erect, but a full complement of plumbing.
In my apartment, the bed doubled as a chair for the dining room table. I had no bathroom of my own, and there was never any guarantee that the one I shared with my neighbors would be free when I needed it to be.
If I close my eyes and really concentrate, I can envision my girlfriend setting foot in my apartment maybe three times.
Without ever really discussing it, we began spending all of our time at her place. So much time, in fact, that her landlord—a daffy old jack-of-all-trades who didn’t believe in privacy—threatened to raise her rent if I didn’t produce a copy of my own lease.
That summer, my girlfriend and I were in love and classes were over and we’d both won grants that freed us from having to get jobs. Life was perfect, except for one thing: we were getting our MFAs in creative writing, which meant we were supposed to be—well, writing.
She was the one, after weeks of quiet despair, who finally mustered up the courage to point out that, if we were ever going to get any work done, we’d need to be alone sometimes.
It was the first realization for us of what it meant for two writers to come together—that in addition to love and friendship and family, we would always have this too: a relationship in writing, with all the pitfalls that came with it.
But her announcement also established an important precedent: that of equal importance to the time we spent together would be the time we spent apart.
As soon as my lease ran out, we caved into the inevitable and moved into the slightly larger attic apartment above her old Winnebago. Here we had separate spaces we could work: for her, a child’s desk crammed into a corner of the walk-in closet; for me, in the cramped living room, a scratchy love seat from which we’d evicted a dead mouse.
Two years later, we got married in a judge’s living room, in front of a wall of commemorative mugs. The vows he read referred to sickness and health and good times and bad. But they didn’t say anything about writing.
These days we have a house. It’s not big, but it has two separate offices. Margaret’s has an adult-size desk; mine has a full-size sofa, entirely free of rodents. The place is somewhat modern and minimalist, with a nice open floor plan. The Winnebago and the attic are long gone, but it’s hard not to feel nostalgic.
Margaret doesn’t like to write at home now. It’s one of several differences in our habits: she also prefers not to talk about what she’s working on. Or to share it, until it’s as close as possible to perfect. But when she’s ready, she brings it to me, eager to know what I think.
I’m inclined to pester her with every brainstorm and every draft I write, and then I wait for her to tell me what to do.
And our books, too, could hardly be more different: hers about space and mine about a turbulent Caribbean island.
But these differences don’t matter nearly as much as the things we have in common: even when we’re apart, in our private spaces, our separate books feel like pieces of a larger whole.
And now, in addition to our lives and our writing, we share a child too—proof that we can also make something wonderful together.
Neil Gaiman on Being a Writer October 27, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Serendipity
Last night, we sat in the audience at a super-secret appearance by Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, Coraline, The Sandman, and much more. He’s in Southern California for the World Fantasy Convention, so he agreed to appear at a fundraiser for Orange County High School for the Arts on the condition that he be rewarded by dining with fellow writers Tim Powers and Jim Blaylock and that no press be contacted, no public publicity be done. Jim, our colleague at Chapman University, let us in on the secret, and we gladly paid our cash to support artsy, ambitious teens.
These teens treated Neil Gaiman like a rock star, squealing at his very presence, wriggling with nerves when he spoke, wondering whether he’d see them winking at him from the back rows. Gaiman himself talked about the weirdness of fan adoration, recounting a couple of stories about tattoos. One man at a book signing showed Gaiman a tattoo of The Sandman, asked the author to sign underneath, then returned before Gaiman had wrapped up to reveal the freshly tattooed autograph still bleeding a little.
The reason that we’re writing about Neil Gaiman is partly because we were refreshed by the sight of that many young people, especially girls, excited about writing, particularly science fiction and other genre writing. We’re also intrigued that, after the conference, he’s touring on the West Coast with his wife, who’s a musician, so they are collaborators. Click HERE for more info about their sold-out tour and how they used Kickstarter to fund it.
But mostly, we’ve written this post as a follow-up to yesterday’s post, “The Luck and Obligation of Writing.” Neil Gaiman certainly didn’t have time to read Lofty Ambitions yesterday, but in the Q&A last night, he reiterated some of what we said.
Gaiman talked about large projects as akin to slow hunches, though he didn’t use that term. He doesn’t think writer’s block is an accurate description of what happens to writers when such a project stalls. He admits that he gets stuck, but then he writes something else. He admits he has good days and bad days at writing. In fact, echoing Leslie Pietrzyk’s discussion of whether writing is fun (see yesterday’s post), Neil Gaiman says of his bad days, “[On those days,] writing is as much fun as a particularly horrible trip to the dentist.” A writer goes back the next day and writes again, or at least reads over the draft to figure out where it went off the rails.
What fascinates Neil Gaiman is that, at the end of a writing project filled with those good and bad writing days, it’s impossible to tell the mood or difficulty behind any page or passage. He claims something very close to the following (but we’re not sure our pen kept up with every word): “You can’t tell which is which […]. It’s all much of a muchness. […] How you felt as you were writing has less to do with the final thing than you thought.” In the end, the novel is all of a piece. The bad days don’t show. The bad days helped get the novel written.
Neither does Neil Gaiman wait for inspiration. Instead, he’s a daydreamer, always thinking, always wondering in that curious way we, too, like. That invites what we call serendipity, but what Gaiman talked of as “two things coming together” for the first time or in a new way even though he’s “thought about it a hundred times.”
So, like us, Neil Gaiman suggests that curiosity invites serendipity. Often, his method is to start asking weird questions. What if? That’s how he nurtures a hunch. Knowing the crowd, Neil Gaiman posed the following weird question: “What if Jim Blaylock always kills and ritually eats one student at the end of every term?” Anyone who knows Jim Blaylock as the soft-spoken, laidback, engaged teacher begins to ponder what it might mean for the person you least suspect to do something more outrageous than you’re used to imagining. And one thought leads to another—and to more questions. Granted, Gaiman’s questions tend to be a bit creepier than our own, but writing is often a way to answer questions, solve problems, and satisfy curiosity.
Importantly, Neil Gaiman also echoes Malcom Gladwell and Diane Ackerman (see yesterday’s post), repeating someone else’s belief that a writer must write a million words to get that early, crappy stuff of his system and reach the real work of writing. (Ira Glass says something similar in a video we’ve posted below.) That’s akin to the ten-thousand hours that Gladwell asserts is necessary for expertise. It’s important to get through those many beginning hours as quickly as possible, to reach expertise while there’s still time to use that wisdom. As Gaiman said last night, “The more writing you do, the better you’ll get at it, the better you’ll get at the craft of it.”
Neil Gaiman captured our sense of obligation, too, but in a way we’d never considered. He spoke of a point in his twenties when he realized that, if he didn’t try to become a writer, he’d think on his deathbed, I could have been a writer. And he wouldn’t know whether that was true or whether he was fooling himself. So he decided to give it a serious go, to find out whether he could become a writer, to remove doubt. He doesn’t seem to have any other question about what he might have been and is comforted to know that, on his deathbed, he will say, I was a writer.
The Luck & Obligation of Writing October 26, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Serendipity
Are we lucky? Or are we obligated?
We’ve been thinking a lot lately about this these questions as writers together, writers separately, and in terms of our larger professional and personal lives.
Last month on her Work-in-Progress blog, novelist Leslie Pietrzyk wrote about whether writing is fun: “‘Fun’—it seemed such a curious word for the constant, endless, soul-sucking struggles with the muse, with the marketplace, with the self. It struck me that no matter how long the list I was asked to give to describe writing, ‘fun’ would never be a word I would choose.” It’s not that she doesn’t want to write, to spend her time writing. It’s not that writing isn’t rewarding and enthralling. But Leslie argues that fun implies mindlessness, and writing is all about mindfulness.
We’ll admit that, by many definitions, we have fun writing. But just because we get a rush from writing and the related activities doesn’t mean we don’t work really hard. In fact, whatever fun there is in writing makes a writer work harder. If writing is easy, you’re probably not doing it right. And doing it easy isn’t much fun, once you’ve done it the hard way. As Richard Bausch says in “Letter to a Young Writer,” “You are trying to do something that is harder than just about anything there is to do, even when it feels easy.”
Over the last year of travel to follow the end of the space shuttle program, we faced a few moments at the Space Coast in which one of us was on the verge of tears and the other was about to pass out, but then something amazing would happen. We’d finish a good post, or we’d talk with an astronaut. Writing may not be as demanding as mountain climbing, but we, like many writers engrossed by large projects, come up to the edge of our interwoven intellectual and physical limits every now and then. And at times, the day-to-day writing feels like trudging uphill with no end in view.
Richard Bausch puts this idea another way: “The thing that separates the amateur writer from the professional, often enough, is simply the amount of time spent working the craft. You know that if you really want to write, if you hope to produce something that will stand up to the winds of criticism and scrutiny of strangers, you’re going to have to work harder than you have ever worked on anything else in your life hour upon hour upon hour, with nothing in the way of encouragement, no good feeling, except the sense that you have been true to the silently admonishing examples of the writers who came before you—the ones whose company you would like to be in and of whose respect you would like to be worthy.” In writing, working hard pays off not with mastery per se but, rather, with new challenges that demand additional effort. Really, there’s no end in sight.
Figuring out the plot arc for a novel and how characters develop in relation to that arc is rarely easy for any writer. But it’s harder if you work on the novel—or any large project—only once a week or once a month. Writing a novel is a little like “the slow hunch” Steven Johnson describes in Where Good Ideas Come From: “Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there’s an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matter and the hunch disappears.” (See Steven Johnson’s TED Talk HERE.) A lot of people want to write a novel, but the idea slips away. Even when you’re in the midst of a draft, if your plot sequence or a character’s motivation is murky, if your doubts mount and your pages don’t, distractions become especially distracting.
If distraction feeds distraction, then attention feeds attention. Daily writing practice—even if that’s rereading, note-taking, outlining, and not actually drafting or revising pages—keeps your mind attentive and also makes your mind more attentive. In other words, if you skip a day of writing, you lose that mindfulness carrying over from the day before, and you don’t move forward. If Doug has worked on his novel four days in a row, he’s likely to say, during our evening walk on the fifth day, “Do you think it would work if I—?” And he can talk through whether that change would because the novel isn’t a murky memory from a week ago.
Let’s say one writer puts in seven hours, one hour every day for a week. Another writer puts in seven hours, but all in one day, then doesn’t look at the novel again for a week. Either way, it’s seven hours, and adding up hours matters. As Malcolm Gladwell claims in Outliers, “[R]esearchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” (See Gladwell’s TED Talk HERE.) If you look at the writing life from that viewpoint, it’s certainly important to rack up hours as quickly as possible in hopes of reaching expertise before it’s too late.
But a project is about more than the sum of those writing hours. It’s also about a given timeframe. We’re spending hours on the blog week to week, but that doesn’t get our novels finished. We need to keep our minds on our separate projects too. The writer working daily on a large project becomes attuned, cultivating serendipity, happening upon lucky accidents and connections, finding a useful tidbit of information for which she wasn’t even aware of looking. Yesterday, in fact, as we were editing this blog post, the new issue of Poets & Writers arrived and, in it, “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity.” One of the four steps Ellen Sussman recommends is daily writing: “If I’m writing every day, four pages a day, then the novel stays in my mind during the hours I’m not writing.”
Of the two writers—the daily writer and the one-long-stretch-when-the-mood-strikes writer—who will get the most accomplished the next time she sits down to work on the project? Will that eighth hour feel different to each writer, depending upon whether the last session was yesterday or a week ago? Momentum, in addition to number of hours, matters. Diane Ackerman says in The Alchemy of Mind, “Inheriting a talent doesn’t insure [sic] that one will use it, but it does raise the likelihood. […] What we like to do becomes the thing we do often, and the thing we do often becomes the thing we do best.” Doing the thing often—writing the blog together, writing our novels separately—makes us better at doing the thing.
Of course, we really like long stretches of writing time, those rare weekend days in which hours of writing are bracketed by pancakes and a DVD. And we don’t pretend that we’re really able to work on our individual book projects every single day. Some days, too many other things must be accomplished. We have other jobs obligations, and then there’s doing laundry and dishes.
We also understand the difference between actual work on “the big thing,” as Cathy Day calls it on her blog, and talking about the large project. We’ve heard about writers who over-talk their novels from start to finish with friends and never bother to write much. Instead of that wheel-spinning aboutness, which might feel like being a writer, we work toward mindfulness, which seems possible only with near-daily hands-on—literal hands, if possible, metaphorical hands when necessary—effort.
As writers, we lean toward thinking of ourselves as obligated, perhaps because that fosters or forces responsibility to our collaborate and individual projects. It fits the way our writing process works, or the way we want it to work. We’ve come to this stance together, though we might have come to it separately, because it makes sense for the way we want to balance our collaborative and separate projects. Sometimes the writing mood descends upon one of us, but neither of us tends to wait for inspiration, which seems akin to luck, instead believing such a thing can be cultivated. Whatever luck or inspiration we have obligates us to earn it. Whatever obligation we feel makes us appreciate a stroke of luck or good will or seemingly perfect timing.
Writing Apart, Writing Together October 19, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Computers, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup
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Recently, we wrote about the relationship between our collaborative writing projects (writing together) and our individual writing projects (writing apart) as well as what happens when we have written together while being physically apart. You can read “Writing Together, Writing Apart” HERE.
We’re learning some lessons as we make our way into our second year of blogging, lessons that apply to the other big projects we write together and especially separately. One thing we’ve come to recognize is the importance of daily writing, or at least putting a hand on the project every day. On the busiest days, that may mean merely sharing a link to Lofty Ambitions on Facebook, grasping for the least little connection to a daily practice.
Part of what explains why we’ve been able to write this blog is that we committed to a regular weekly schedule that established habits to support that schedule. At first, that meant a collaborative post every Wednesday. Then, we started doing occasional additional posts, usually when the news or an event anniversary triggered an idea. Later, we added guest bogs and, more recently, video interviews. The regularity and the schedule’s predictability keep our minds on the project. We discuss the blog when we take an evening walk, we pitch and outline new topics over beers at a local watering hole, and we dissect previous posts, especially our series posts, looking for something important we might have missed or something worth expanding. Our blog writing is on our minds every day, and we’re planning, drafting, or revising more days than not.
This summer posed particular problems for our regular pace and the way we like to collaborate. Anna was away at Sewanee Writers’ Conference for two weeks, then Doug traveled to the Space Coast for almost a week to see the GRAIL launch. No evening walks, no brainstorming together over beers. Particularly disconcerting was the time change, so that when we talked on the phone, we each were in a different part of the day. When Anna called home before bed from Sewanee, Doug was heading out for a run. When Doug called home from Titusville after drafting a post, Anna was eating dinner. Not only did writing apart mean we were physically separated, but also that our mindsets were not synced up in the day’s arc.
All our previous trips to the Space Coast had been together. This time, Doug had been chosen for the official GRAIL Tweetup, and Anna couldn’t miss the second week of the semester. This Florida trip was different than merely writing while apart, as we’d done when Anna was at Sewanee. At the Space Coast, we’d already established routines together. We had shared memories there. We’d used our four trips to Florida to learn how to be better collaborators, to be in sync and productive. But this time, we had to write together on a specific, unfolding topic far from each other: the GRAIL launch.
Before Doug left, we had outlined a plan for our series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” but that outline changed daily as news developed and we thought of additional content. The outline made us feel better and served as a necessary safety net, but the end result doesn’t match the initial plan for the series.
Doug had to gather the bulk of the content by himself for several posts. Anna had to trust that a post would show up for her to revise and that she wouldn’t have questions about what something meant. Doug had to trust that whatever he sent would be revised and posted while he slept. We gritted our teeth and believed that it would all make sense in the end, and we’re pretty sure it did.
While Doug was attending the GRAIL launch by himself, it wasn’t as if he was working alone. Doug relied on range of social media tools (after all, he was attending a Tweetup) in a greater capacity than ever before, so he drew from a virtual community. For our previous trips to the Space Coast, we attended the shuttle launches as members of the media, and we relied heavily on face-to-face interactions with our colleagues in the News Center and Annex. Although many members of the press are also social media mavens, some are still catching up or even ignoring social media technologies (in one memorable exchange, Doug tutored a press corps member on the relationship between Twitter, Tweetups, and NASA’s social media strategy). Given the nature of a NASA Tweetup, with its 150 actual attendees and hundreds of other interested observers tweeting about the GRAIL launch and related activities, Doug was able to stay current with Space Coast information and events. And we were able to keep up with each other day to day, each of us leaving virtual crumbs for the other to follow.
Doug’s GRAIL work also was heavily influenced by our new iPad. Our previous divide-and-conquer methodology gave us the flexibility to send one of us out to an event or to sniff out news tidbits while the other stayed with the laptops and continued working. We finally took the plunge on iPad for this go-it-alone trip, and it worked well. Now we find ourselves using the iPad for research and writing every day. The iPad isn’t a substitute for our paper notebooks or our Mac laptops, but it makes it easier to keep our hands on our writing projects every day. A daily writing practice is difficult to maintain, so if a device makes it feel a bit easier or a bit closer to one’s fingertips, that’s good.
Mostly importantly, though, Doug’s work habits were shaped by years of being a researcher and a student: show up, pay attention, and take damned good notes. That’s really what a daily writing practice means: show up, stay focused, and get some words on the page.
Since Doug’s return from the Space Coast, we’ve returned to our more usual patterns for writing the blog. We’ve learned, though, that one of us can sometimes take the lead and run with an idea without brainstorming together first. This method offers a certain kind of collaboration and conversation, but we don’t want to take turns post by post. We don’t want to take a break or lose momentum. We don’t write any blog posts completely separately, in part because we have our own individual projects outside of the blog for writing separately (we’ll write more soon about working on our individual projects). But it’s good to know we could take turns in a pinch.
Our blogger habits—talking things through with each other, sharing outlines and drafts, writing very much together through the process—keep the blog on our minds day to day and make this large, ongoing project easier. That’s a lesson for our individual projects as well. Habits of daily attention make large projects easier.
MCAS Miramar Air Show (Part 2) October 5, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration.
Tags: Airshows, Serendipity
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Last week, we wrote about “Writing Together, Writing Apart.” We’ve been thinking about those issues a lot lately, and we’re in the midst of drafting a couple more posts about how we write as a couple and as individuals and how we work together on a writing project and separately on different projects.
This past weekend, our visit to the MCAS Miramar Air Show reminded us that our writing together comes out of some shared activities that helped shape and solidify our relationship way back when. This week, we take some time to recount our Sunday of gaping at the sky (click HERE to see more of our PHOTOS in Part 1), but we’re also in the process of weaving this description back into our grappling with writing as a couple.
The annual MCAS (Marine Corp Air Station) Miramar Air Show, as you would expect from the name, has a decidedly military vibe. Most air shows have a present and past military presence, but Miramar is more of that than any other air show we’ve attended. This year’s show had the added mission of honoring the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation. The program is labeled “A Salute to San Diego,” with the following text just beneath: “1911 ~ Birthplace of Naval Aviation ~ 2011.” A quick glance might give the impression that the first landing on and take-off from an aircraft carrier took place in San Diego. In fact, those events took place 500 miles away in San Francisco. (Click HERE for a blog post, published on the actual 100th birthday, 18 January 2011, that contains some fantastic photographs of the events.)
This year at Miramar, the day’s signature event was the thirty-minute MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) Demonstration Team. As befitting the ground part of MAGTF, there were tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees careening about on the tarmac. But the real appeal for us were the numerous aircraft: C-130s, F/A-18s, AV-8Bs, and CH-46s just to name a few. Our eyes were pointed skyward watching the F/A-18 Hornets flashed by in high-speed passes at 600 knots. (We think that’s what the announcer said, but, of course, it was a bit loud at the moment he said it.) That’s just over 90% of the speed of sound (661 knots or 761 mph at sea level, which was about where we were, since Miramar means sea view).
We’ve never before seen as many helicopters in the air at once. In fact, this was the first time that either of us had seen an MV-22A Osprey up close and personal. The Osprey is a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft that the Marine Corps uses to move troops. The Osprey blends (some would say breaks) the characteristics of a fixed-wing aircraft with a helicopter. Or rather, with two helicopters, since the Osprey’s enormous blades and engines are mounted on both wingtips. The blades are so large that the Osprey can have them in the fully forward position only once it is airborne. It’s an odd, yet somehow very impressive-looking, machine.
If we had only two words to describe the AV-8B Harrier, another VTOL aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory, they would be LOUD and improbable. The first time we encountered a Harrier at an air show was at the Quad City Air Show in the early 1990s, one of our first forays to such events together. Back then, a volunteer walked through the crowd to pass out orange earplugs and warn that the air show wouldn’t be responsible for our hearing loss if we chose to forego the offered hearing protection. We had our own earplugs on hand this time, and we admit we used them.
The Harrier is descended from a 1960’s British aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, and Harrier pilots have been flying amazing maneuvers for nearly fifty years. This past Sunday, part of the MAGTF demonstration featured two Harriers flying, or hovering, really, perched atop shimmering towers of hot jet engine exhaust as they made their way down the runway at improbably slow speeds. That particular demonstration is among the least improbable bit of flying that the Harrier can do. Later in the day, a solo Harrier demonstration featured a vertical takeoff, another improbability that we’d seen twenty years ago on the shores of the Mississippi River. Ready for more? How about slowly flying sideways? Definitely another tick up the improbability scale. At just about the point that your brain begins to wonder whether this some sort of videogame, the pilot throws the Harrier in reverse and confirms the surreal. These Harrier demonstrations never get old.
A full day of sun, sound, and standing on concrete took its toll. The Blue Angels were scheduled to begin their display at 2:45 pm, but they were delayed. It’s difficult to leave an air show before the last act, but by 3:00 pm, we were ready to call it a day. Besides, we’ve seen the Blue Angels several times, and our aching knees and backs were as pressing as our need for lunch. We headed for the exit slowly, lingered at the car with the doors open to cool it, and hoped to catch a glimpse of the Blue Angels before we drove away.
As we’ve written several times at Lofty Ambitions, serendipity sometimes catches us, and that’s what happed on Sunday. Just as we were finishing lunch at a restaurant on the road between the air show and the freeway, the sound of jet engines roared overhead. We rushed out into the parking lot and caught the Blue Angels show from a completely new vantage. We had positioned ourselves at a randomly chosen sandwich shop. In fact, we had stopped at a different place first, but it was closed. This randomly chosen sandwich shop just happened to be on the Blue Angels’ flight path. Roughly five minutes after the show started, Doug heard a gentle rumble behind us and turned to see four jets approaching in a diamond pattern. In just a few seconds, it became clear that they would fly directly over our heads: 200-250 feet above us at nearly 500 mph. The F/A-18 Hornets came over our position as a single jet, a pair of jets, and in the diamond formation at least a half-dozen times. By pure chance, we’d managed the best seats in the house.
All during the Blue Angels’ routine, cars spontaneously pulled into the same parking lot where we stood and emptied of families who plopped themselves down onto any grass they could find. An Indian family emerged from the Indian restaurant. Adults were as awestruck as the children. We all spent the next twenty minutes staring into the sky, looking at fast-moving flashes of blue and yellow. On that first pass overhead, a young boy standing not twenty feet away from us started spontaneously shouting and cheering. Anna was doing the same thing. The sounds that air show crowds make are different from the trilling ooh’s and ah’s of a fireworks display. Air show crowds gasp with punctuated yelps of wow’s and oh-my’s, as if surprised by every pass, every loop, every zipping into the distant clouds.
We are aviation nerds. Despite what we know about the physics of lift and gravity, of thrust and drag, the fact that a big metal contraption can manage controlled flight boggles our minds. One of the reasons that we like air shows so much is that, despite the complicated politics and ethics on display, the aircraft themselves have the power to turn anyone within the line-of-sight and earshot into an aviation nerd, if only for a couple of hours, if only for a few minutes in a strip mall parking lot.
We end this post on a different topic, with a video of Steve Jobs, giving the Commencement Address at Stanford University in 2005. Steve Jobs died today, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. We drafted and revised this post on Mac laptops and are long-time Mac users. We like especially the way Steve Jobs talks here about learning widely and about the role of serendipity.
Writing Together, Writing Apart September 28, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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In July, Anna headed for Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where she participated in the poetry workshop run by William Logan and Debora Greger and a host of other activities. For those two weeks apart, we kept writing together here at Lofty Ambitions. Separated by two-thirds of the country, we also went back and forth via email and phone on a draft of an article about Titusville, where we stayed on our Space Coast visits.
Though we didn’t stop writing together for those two weeks, it resembled a cobbling together. Our cell phones worked poorly, so we depended on the internet to exchange ideas and drafts. We faced some miscommunication and bad timing. Because Anna was often booked from breakfast (earlier in the day than she likes to be booked) through an evening reading, and sometimes into those infamous writerly gatherings that follow, Anna revised and posted, but Doug took the lead in drafting during those two weeks. Usually, if one of us takes the lead for a post, that leading-the-charge emerges out of interest and inclination, not out of day-to-day scheduling constraints and assigned responsibility. We’ve established a rhythm over the last year and grown familiar with each other’s perspectives and voices on the page, so we managed to keep writing together just fine.
Really, though, despite our collaborative efforts, those two weeks meant writing apart. By writing apart, we mean that we each have our own separate writing projects.
These individual projects are especially challenging because we are collaborators. A book project is daunting for any individual, of course. Every writer faces obligations to, say, a paying job, family, and whatever keeps him or her from the necessary hours of writing every week or every day. In these ways, we are no different than any other two writers trying to finish books. The difference is our awareness that our writing together competes with our writing apart, that time spent collaborating on blog posts and article drafts means time not spent on our individual book projects.
We remain keenly aware that it’s all good writing time, no matter which project. But we can fool ourselves because writing together feels generous, unselfish. Collaboration skirts around the loneliness and sole responsibility that sometimes plague a writer. So, we actively encouraging each other to keep our separate hands on our individual projects every day or two. We’re leery of letting our individual selves off the hook under the illusion of being needed by and being appreciated by the other of us.
Now, as autumn opens up before us, Anna is trying to get her head around her poetry and nonfiction projects. Meeting poets Debora Greger, Mary Jo Salter, and Claudia Emerson reminded her how important poetry is to her writing life and demonstrated that other women poets are interested in some of the same seemingly odd topics, including nuclear radioactivity exposure and space exploration. Claudia Emerson recommended the book Multiple Exposures, which Anna now keeps at her bedside for nighttime reading.
Doug has his own book project. This summer, he reorganized his novel outline, refocusing The Chief and the Gadget for a start-to-finish overhaul. As never before, he knows where the draft stands and what must be done. Like any novel writer who sticks with it, finishing becomes a matter of time.
In deciding to write apart as we are also writing together, we have decided to take the long view of our writing careers. We juggle projects instead of working sequentially on one thing, then the next. Many writers do this without working collaboratively, as often a writer must have several projects in motion to see which one hits when. Most productive writers must become adept at planning, at setting and meeting deadlines, and at understanding each project’s parts and arc.
We came to these recent projects with very different project management styles. Anna has long been a deadline-oriented, daybook planner kind of gal. (In fact, her nickname by the end of college was Julie, the Cruise Director.) Doug, on the other hand, made it through several careers and graduate programs without a daybook planner. When he started his novel project, he also began to trust the organization of his life to Google Calendar. Sure, we often misjudge how long a given thing will take to draft and revise, and sometimes we forget that it’s Wednesday and scramble to pull a post together. And we’ve each had to accommodate the other’s style, benefiting from the combination of daybook and come what may.
The danger of writing together is that it makes writing apart harder to manage. Mostly, it is rewarding to move back and forth between writing together and writing apart. But when we fall behind or miss our self-imposed deadlines, it is on our individual projects, not on the blog or other collaborations. A year ago, Anna thought it would take two months to revise her novel manuscript with the pointed feedback she had received. But somewhat unexpectedly, we traveled to the Space Coast last November to see a shuttle not-launch (view that series HERE). Four such trips in eight months was great for writing together. The shuttle’s end set an external clock. As a result, Anna’s novel revision took an entire year. We see each other every day; our collaboration carries immediacy.
The reward of writing together is that it makes writing apart easier to manage. We see each other every day; our collaboration is a daily reminder that we’re writers. Anna’s workshop leaders at Sewanee are a couple. They do not write books or blogs together, but they both write poetry and are intellectual partners. According to William Logan, to make such a relationship work, “You need to revel in each other’s successes.” Not only does this advice advocate against jealousy, it advocates for a writing couple’s individual projects. We imagine astronaut couples are in a similar situation, understanding each other’s careers but not assigned to the same missions. (See Astronaut Shannon Walker speak to this in our video interview HERE).
Our approach to writing together and apart makes us feel as if it’s possible to become more than the sum of our parts. To calculate it that way means keeping track of the parts, cheering each other on, taking up each other’s slack. William Logan added that it was vital to see an individual success as “a victory for both of us.” Writing together, writing apart—it’s all shared victory when it works.
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Physics
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In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.
In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.
FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow
In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.
We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.
We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.
Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.
We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.
Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.
Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.
This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.
Guest Blog: Thea Ledendecker August 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Two weeks ago, our guest blogger was Eric Wasserman (click HERE for his post). But he’s merely one half of a writing couple. This week’s post is written by Thea Ledendecker. It’s a sort of he-said, she-said pair of guest posts this month, though each writer takes up an individual topic that deserves its own due. In fact, we’re especially interest in that balance of separate and together that Thea and Eric seem to manage well.
Thea earned her M.A. from Emerson College and now works in the English Department at the University of Akron. She writes fiction (sample HERE) and also writes the blog Celiac Shiksa, which features gluten-free recipes.
LOCKED IN THE BASEMENT
My husband, Eric, locked me in the basement again.
He said he wouldn’t let me out until I’d written something. Anything.
For those of you with your hand on the phone ready to call the spousal abuse hotline, fear not. The finished section of the basement is actually quite nice, with two comfy chairs, a faux-wood floor, and even a little window. The door isn’t actually locked. It’s not even closed, since the cat gets angry when he can’t escape.
The real reason I’m stuck down here is that I’ve been procrastinating. Eric hates that, mostly because the longer I go without writing, the worse my mood gets, until it spirals into a dark mix of self-loathing and despair. Luckily for me, he found a solution.
My husband writes almost every single day, but I write in spurts and starts, which sputter and die out quickly. Then it starts all over again. Eric has been trying to train me to have a writing routine for the last decade. He’s learned that just saying I should do something isn’t enough. There has to be some kind of punishment involved, even if it doesn’t hurt in the slightest. One time he got so frustrated with me that he told me to go to the bedroom (we had a one-bedroom apartment at the time, so it was the only place to go besides the bathroom) and not come out until I’d written at least one thousand words. This worked. I huffed and I puffed, but I didn’t open the door, and after a few embarrassed curses aimed in his general direction beyond the closed door, I sighed and sat down to write. Every time my mind started feeding me the usual excuses to stop, the thought of coming out empty-handed and facing his disappointment was what made me soldier on. After a while, I forgot that I was locked in the bedroom and that it had been so much trouble to write. A few hours later, I triumphantly handed him a whole chapter of the novel I was working on.
Granted, this method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I just tell him to go to hell. He knows I appreciate it, though, so he waits until he thinks it’s safe and then locks me in the basement again. Sometimes I ask him to.
That’s one of the great things about being married to a writer. He gives me the kind of kick-in-the-pants support that I need. No one but Eric would even have thought of locking me in the basement. He just doesn’t put up with bullshit.
Unlike me, Eric can’t seem to stop writing. He writes every day for hours at a time, sometimes more, drowning out the world with a sensory overload of cable news and YouTube videos of butt rock bands from the 1980s. Over it all, I can still hear the sound of his index fingers jabbing at the keyboard as if he was angry with each letter. This is another reason that I end up in the basement, where it’s quiet.
But if the music stops and he starts frantically cleaning the house while muttering that his novel is never going to be finished, I know it’s time for an intervention. There are times when he writes too much, and it’s my job to make him stop, take a break, and put his novel away for a little while so that it can sort itself out in his head. Of course, I let him finish cleaning first. Then I hide his novel. I always give it back.
We don’t necessarily like it when the other one gets temperamental, but we do recognize it as part of the creative process. If Eric barges into my office while I’m in the middle of a paragraph, sure, I’ll snap at him. By the time I’m done, we’ve both forgiven each other for our sins. Living together works because we understand that it’s writing that soothes the savage beast. If we don’t let our spouses lock themselves in their offices to write out all their demons, then we’d each have to deal with the worst parts of the other person. If we didn’t let (make) each other write or stop writing, we’d probably have killed each other by now. This would not be conducive to writing.
So my husband locks me in the basement. It’s good for me.
Guest Blog: Eric Wasserman August 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Books, Museums & Archives
One of the topics to which we keep returning is writing as a couple. This topic isn’t easy for us to tackle, and we sometimes find other writing couples hesitant to write about it, too. Maybe it’s difficult to articulate the writing part of couple relationships in which much goes unspoken or taken for granted. It’s personal. We don’t want to jinx it. What works one month may change the next.
We are especially grateful, therefore, that Eric Wasserman and Thea Ledendecker are willing to share their take, or their give-and-take, as a writing couple. We’ll post Thea’s piece next time (click HERE for hers). This week, we feature Eric, who was raised in Portland, Oregon, but waxes nostalgic his time in Southern California. He teaches at the University of Akron and is on the faculty of the NEOMFA. His story collection, The Temporary Life, is already out, and his novel, Celluloid Strangers, will be published this year.
After you read Eric’s post, check out what his wife has to say about writing as a couple HERE.
THE SPONGE AND HIS SQUEEZE
I recently completed a new short story. My wife, also a writer, hates it.
I can live with this since we’re only talking about eighteen pages. However, I was not so live-and-let-live when it came to her critiquing the various drafts of my novel, Celluloid Strangers. Over the course of its six-year journey from drafting to publication, there were some pretty heated exchanges I had with my most important and trusted reader.
My wife and I own a house in Akron, Ohio, with separate offices where we can close our doors and each write in solitude. However, when I started working on my novel, we were living in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, California, where my writing desk was literally part of the open kitchen (she typed on a laptop on the couch five-feet away). Cramped quarters would be an understatement; it was the only time in my life when my writing regimen resembled a contact sport. I’m not nostalgic for those bad old days. There’s zero romanticism in having no money as aspiring young writers. It sucks.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing about our writing life together has not. My wife forever remains the quintessential squeeze to my sponge.
Allow me to explain.
The strongest image I have from those days when I was deciding whether to have car insurance or health insurance, since I couldn’t afford both as an adjunct instructor who was freeway-flying between four different community colleges in the City of Angels, is that of my personal angel sitting cross-legged on the floor of that little apartment with the manuscript for my novel in her lap. I always had a working draft printed out and kept in a binder (if the apartment caught fire, I saved this after the cats were safe). My wife was opening and closing the binder to remove pages. And those not removed were covered in her purple-penned scribbles with uncountable demands for eliminating everything from phrasing to whole paragraphs.
When a fiction writer plucks observations from life or modifies slightly autobiographical information into an imagined narrative, readers ideally release themselves to the world of make believe. For instance, from the few things I have learned about Jonathan Franzen’s life, I can guess that certain aspects of his novels The Correction or Freedom are possibly autobiographical, but it’s a passing thought. The problem with deciding to share the rest of my life with another writer is that nothing gets by her.
This is a good thing.
My wife knows what serves and does not serve my stories in ways others never will. She is my first line of defense, the one who says, “Good God, I know you heard that on NPR when we were in the car the other day, but you didn’t need to put it in the novel,” or “Come on, just because you’re fascinated with every aspect of Charlie Chaplin’s life doesn’t mean readers care. A few details capture the character’s personality just fine. Get rid of the rest.”
I am the type of writer who is cursed with soaking up everything around me like a sponge, especially when I am conducting research for a story. What my wife does is give a strong squeeze to that sponge to make sure the very few items remaining, which I have plucked from the life we share, really are relevant to the imagined worlds and characters I am presenting. Sometimes I accept her squeezes immediately. Most of the time, it takes her several drafts of coaxing. In the end, she’s usually right.
We were recently in Washington, D.C., and had the chance to see the new exhibit on the 1940s at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. My forthcoming novel is set in 1940s Los Angeles and has a film-themed component. We saw two paintings I had never known existed. The first was Edward Biberman’s “Tear Gas and Water Hoses” (1945), which depicts the studio trade union riots on the Warner Brothers lot. My wife, excited, said, “Look, it’s that scene from your novel!” I had just approved the final text of the book shortly before this trip. Then, we turned a corner and saw another painting I had never discovered before, Paul Sample’s “Movies — Canton Island” (1943), which depicts World War II G.I.s watching a Hollywood film in the desert. My wife’s instant reaction upon seeing this was, “Thank God you’ve already approved the final manuscript.”
She knew that she, as the squeeze to my sponge, would have had to rinse out the image of Sample’s painting from my novel, had I had the chance to incorporate it prior to approving the final text. Fair enough.
But now that I think about it, that new short story she hates might be beyond squeezing to her acceptability all together.
Last Chance to See (Part 12) July 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Cognitive Science, Last Chance to See, Music, Space Shuttle
“Jet lag,” muttered one of his friends, “long trip from California. Really mucks you up for a couple of days.”
“I don’t think he’s been there at all,” muttered another. “I wonder where he has been. And what’s happened to him.”
~Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
In our blog anniversary post (click HERE for that one), we tried to make a sort of sense of what we’ve been doing over the past year. That was on July 1, before we headed off to the Space Coast for the last-ever space shuttle launch. This past week has been an intense physical and emotional experience in which we’ve lost track of time. We’re settling back into our regular routines; Anna went to the dry cleaner and the grocery store; Doug returned to his daily job at the library. But our attention remains on STS-135 too.
Atlantis and the International Space Station are now orbiting our planet at roughly 17,500 miles an hour. That means the astronauts experience a sunrise and sunset every hour-and-a-half or so, making for more than 15 shuttle space days for every Earth day, if we define a day by sunrise. But shuttle astronauts in space don’t mark time that way. Instead, their clock (and that big countdown clock you saw on NASA-TV and CNN last Friday) ticks off mission elapsed time (MET). At twenty-four hours MET, Flight Day 2 begins.
At the beginning of each flight day, the astronauts are awakened with a song from Earth. Music marks time for them in a less precise, more culturally inflected way than MET. On Flight Day 2, that wake-up song was “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, picked by Pilot Doug Hurley. Coldplay has awakened shuttle astronauts three times before.
For Flight Day 3, Commander Chris Ferguson chose “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It’s the fourth time E.L.O. has awakened a shuttle crew.
And what did Mission Specialist and native Illinoisan Sandy Magnus choose for Flight Day 4? “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down. Not a bad message for NASA right now.
Flight Day 5 started with “More” by Matthew West, chosen by Mission Specialist Rex Walheim.
On Flight Day 6, Elton John offered a special message for the STS-135 crew. “Rocket Man” woke up this crew and the crews of four previous shuttle crews.
As part of his message to STS-135 on Flight Day 7, Michael Stipe said, “I recorded ‘Man on The Moon’ for NASA in Venice, Italy, where Galileo first presented to the Venetian government his eight-power telescope, and in 1610 wrote ‘The Starry Messenger’ (Sidereus Nuncius), an account of his early astronomical discoveries that altered forever our view of our place in the universe.” R.E.M.’s “Happy Shiny People” has awakened two previous shuttle crews.
“Good Day Sunshine” by Paul McCartney, with a cheery message from the former Beatle, roused the crew on Flight Day 8 at 12:59a.m. EDT today, on Friday, July 15. They had a bit of a computer problem at the beginning of their sleep shift, so NASA let the astronauts sleep a half-hour later than the planned schedule. They are in the midst of transferring the payload to the ISS, and they talked with President Obama and reporters today.
These last few days back home in California, we wish that our time was as organized as that of astronauts in orbit. The odd hours we’ve kept this last week in Florida and the day of travel on Tuesday, with the three-hour time change, have left our heads spinning. We’re coming off that odd mix of exhaustion and adrenaline, feeling sleepy and alert simultaneously, but starting to get back on track with things we’d put aside and shored up.
What might it mean to measure time according to our missions, with a version of MET? The mission clock would begin at zero and elapse as we (presumably) made progress on the project over time. Blog elapsed time: +379 days. Novel elapsed time: +5 years, if we include research and breaks for moving and other writing projects. Or perhaps, the clock should stop when we are working on another project, like a hold in the countdown clock before launch. Though they have a multitude of tasks, the astronauts are focused on a single mission; they can’t stop the MET clock while they draft a short story because they can’t interrupt the mission tasks for other ideas that come to mind. If something is scheduled for +4 days, it must occur on the fourth day of the mission whether the shuttle’s mission begins on its originally scheduled launch date or, after a delay, two days or two months later.
On the Earth’s surface, we move among several projects at a time. We write a blog while holding down day jobs. We write articles together and separately and have larger writing projects too. Just as it would quickly become silly for orbiting astronauts to count days by each sunrise they view, those of us under the great influence of gravity cannot keep accurate track using mission elapsed time. The way a person measures time must fit the circumstances, while also making sense with the way the larger world works.
It turns out that the shuttle astronauts are not beholden only to MET. They are moving between MET and the coordinated universal time (UTC) of the International Space Station (ISS). UTC is a carefully devised standard time, a more precise replacement for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), with even leap seconds added to sync up UTC with the Earth’s rotation. The second (and millisecond) are constant, but larger units can vary in order to keep universal time accurate. Computers also use UTC. Because the ISS is an ongoing project, a destination for many individual shuttle missions over the years, using an MET clock would run up days into meaningless numbers. Elapsed time isn’t that important to know on the ISS. The unload the shuttle payload when it gets there, not according to some schedule the ISS itself has. So that the STS-135 crew can move between the shuttle and ISS time zones without getting too confused, the space shuttle has a UTC clock too.
Music provides yet another way to mark time, both as a daily wake-up demarcation and in a larger sense. Songs stick with us. Admit it, you thumped to Chumbawamba in the fall of 1997. How old were you when E.L.O. was churning out the hits in the 1970s? Ah, “Rocket Man” and 1972: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, The Price is Right begins and Bewitched ends. Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 conclude U.S. manned spaceflight (or so it seemed at the time).
As Daniel Levitin puts it in This Is Your Brain on Music, “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”
He goes on to explain why you may have a particular affinity for “Rocket Man” or “Tubthumping.” “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years. [...] Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert [hah, a pun!] to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”
Chris Ferguson was 16 years old, that emotionally charged time of self-discovery, when “Mr. Blue Sky” was released in 1978. In 1997, when Chumbawamba hit the charts, Sandy Magnus had recently been selected for astronaut training and began her work at Johnson Space Center that led to her first shuttle mission in 2002. Nothing in Rex Walheim’s official NASA biography indicates why 2004, when “More” was released, might have been a particularly emotionally charged time for him, but that song was the most-played song on Christian radio that year. In 2008, when Coldplay released “Viva la Vida,” Doug Hurley was training for his first space shuttle mission.
At breakfast at the Village Inn in Titusville, this past week, we heard “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb, a song we hadn’t heard in years, a song that was on the K-tel record that Anna received at her boy–girl birthday party in eighth grade.
On one of our previous trips to the Space Coast, the radio in our rental car had been left set to FM 96.5 when we picked it up. This station plays a mix of classic rock that we don’t listen to much anymore, but it replicates the playlist of 97X, the radio station from Moline, Illinois, of Doug’s teen years. (As a curious aside, Doug’s high school locker number was 97. Each fall for the four years that Doug attended AHS, an “X” mysteriously appeared next to the locker number, making his locker 97X.) The Orlando station’s signal is strong, the songs familiar fodder for our NASA-visit mode.
Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the 1989 cover of a 1975 Ian Hunter song (Ian was a founding member of Mott the Hoople, a name that has the feel of a Douglas Adams novel), was in heavy rotation this past week. After not hearing that song for more than two decades, we probably heard the ode to groupies and casual sex every day last week. For Doug, “Once Bitten Twice Shy” calls to mind the summer of 1989, when he studied Russian at Beloit College. The song and that moment in time that it recalls link together several of the themes that we’ve been exploring. Who’d have predicted from the vantage of that late-1980s summer, still several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two years before the end of the Soviet Union, that today Russian would be an official language on the space station (all U.S. astronauts who serve extended periods on the ISS speak Russian) and that the United States will require Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts into low-earth orbit?