Words Fail Me

I come from a family full of stage folk.

I’m pretty sure that somewhere on my birth certificate it states that I wasn’t born in a hospital but rather on the jutting apron of a stage.

I was raised flossing my teeth on the grimy ropes of the house curtains. I learned to crawl up on some poorly constructed way over-budget theater catwalk. And I probably believed for years that whomever was hired as the followspot operator for the sun should be readily fired, as he was doing an abominable job whenever I was outside and in need of illumination.

There was the stage, and then there was … well, I heard there was other stuff, but I wasn’t sure what it all was or looked like.

Whether drawing a bow across an instrument shaped like a violin but surely in truth a tortured cat, skipping across eighty-eight keys with the hope and a prayer that some of them will be the right ones, and a few in the right order, or clutching a microphone and praying it can cover the intense alarm on my face as I gaze out over a crowd of hundreds, it didn’t matter that I left my lunch in a bucket backstage before stepping into that lonely pool of light. What mattered was that minutes later I realized that I’d left my heart out on that dais and that I was going to have to go back there to get it.

Because I wanted to do it all over again.

I’m not sure if the real thrill came from the adrenaline rush of standing in front of showgoers and hearing them applaud at the end of the number or the stress release of realizing that I made it through to the end, had not fainted in the middle of my performance, and no one had to rush up on stage and drag my limp body off into the wings.

It was always, always a possibility.

And the thing that created the most mammoth amount of nerve jangling? Going blank.

I’m going to guess that most folks have had this happen to them at least once in their lives. You forget someone’s name, all the facts you’d just crammed into your head the night before for the big test have suddenly vanished, maybe you arrive in a room and think, I’ve walked down into this cobwebbed, basement utility room for … what again?

And the consequences for these blunders can range from annoying to GPA torpedoing.

My vocation blunders were usually on the end of the spectrum marked “cringe-worthy.” That just went with the territory.

But thankfully, there were a boatload of tricks I’d learned over the years, ready to be shelled out at a moment’s notice, if my brain suddenly blew a fuse and all went dark.

Lose the thread in the middle of your fiddle solo? Just “accidentally” knock a peg and lose a string. Then give a nod to one of the guys in the band. They then take over while you just start clapping along and wait for a stage hand to slide you your spare Stradivarius.

Blow the choreography? Quick do the splits. Audiences love the splits. It’s both riveting and unsettling. And throw in some Travolta disco fever hand gestures. Pretty soon one of the other dancers is going to improvisationally pick you up and help pirouette you off the stage and out of the fray.

Forget the lyrics to your song? Point the mic to the audience and scream, “Sing along! Y’all know the words!”

Or step on the microphone’s cord and unplug it—or if it’s cordless, switch it off, and bang it on your hand like the battery’s gone dead. Send up looks of frustration to the sound booth at the back of the theater and shrug apologetically at the crowd.

There’s always something one can do to hide a misstep or mistake, and the more you do it, the more adroitly you grow at gracefully sliding around it.

But … what if the mistake is not you but your audience?

Yeah, sure, that’s a bit meta. But let me explain.

These days I no longer shuffle or sing or fiddle my way across a platform, I simply speak atop of it. I visit schools and libraries as an author determined to inspire middle school and high school kids to leap off the great precipice of possibility, wade through the wretched whirlpool of failure, and trudge down the precarious path of the Hero’s Journey just like their favorite characters.

I also encourage them to erect statues of all their school librarians.

But occasionally you get thrown a curveball you’ve never been thrown before—like arriving to give a talk to a bunch of people who were half the people you thought they’d be—not as in size, rather stature. As in, some of them were still busy forming eyelids and fingernails. One or two of them were definitely going to struggle with my talk mostly because talking was an incredibly fresh activity for them.

How could I deliver a message which was tailored to kids who were already prepping for their SATs when the true audience was still working on their ABCs?

I panicked. And it wasn’t pretty.

There was no mic to sabotage, no instrument to abjectly point to with regret—there wasn’t even a back door. And a back door is crucial if your excuse for not showing up when your name is called is that you heard cries for help out in the alley and rushed to aid the distressed and then rode along in the ambulance to make sure the paramedic had enough blood on hand because you happen to be O negative and the universal blood type.

I stood in front of these tiny preschool and elementary kids as they whirled in circles on their swivel chairs. Extra added bonus? The swivel chairs also had wheels.

My brain raced and squealed in a high-pitched hysteria: How do I rework and reword my ten minute tale of resilience about strong-willed and single-minded NASA scientists who had worked for fifteen years on one Mars rover project only to see a fat chunk of their life’s work come to a hugely crushing end because of some unforeseeable and miniscule error in math calculations?

So … there are these people who built a thing that went up—up to where the stars are, right? And this one thing—which took them a bazillion years to build—just went … boom? Right? Then these people gasped, hit the floor with their knees, ate a lot of ice cream, and then got up and said, “Let’s give her another go, Stanley!” Does that make sense? Cuz that’s what I’m telling you to do too.

Imagine this scenario—just with different subjects—on repeat somewhere about four or five times. Yeah, that was my talk.

I really thought I’d blown it. It was the wrong talk, to the wrong audience, with the right stuff, but the wrong time.

I made a tiny bow of my head and mumbled the end to a smattering of applause from the befuddled librarian and a few parents.

As I was packing up my things to slink out to my car, thinking I could wallow quietly in a pool of my lead balloon bomb, a mother and her small daughter came up to me. “We’d like to buy your book.”

I pulled back. “Really?”

“Yup,” the girl replied. “I’m going to read it … once I learn to read.”

I looked at the mother. “The main character is twice her age.”

“Not for long,” the little girl said.

I thought about my talk’s message of dealing with downfalls. You get in over your head, you make a mistake, you face failure in the eye. It happens. So get up, get going, start again. You go from can’t to can, couldn’t but want to, didn’t but will.

Life is not a stage, life is a series of stages.

This little girl got it. Shined a spotlight on it too. I started applauding, but that came across as a little weird.

So I just did the splits.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

NASA: Definitely not a Waste of Space

“So how ‘bout that whole folding of the fabric of time thing?” I asked when it was finally my turn in the long line of people forming a queue.

“I beg your pardon?” an elderly NASA engineer asked, his two furry white eyebrows fully sewing together in the middle of his face.

“Time travel,” I clarified. “You don’t have to keep the research bits a secret from me. I’ve got a badge and everything. I’m allowed to be here.”

“MOTHER!”

I felt a sharp yank at my elbow and was spun out of the line and pushed toward the conference hall’s exit doors.

I heard the engineer ask the assistant at his side to find new batteries for his hearing aid as he thought they were going a bit dodgy.

I detached the sharp claw around my arm and glanced over at my daughter’s face. It was a little more red than I thought healthy—like the color a kid’s face turns when they’ve been holding their breath after you tell them they’re absolutely going to eat every last bit of liver on their dinner plate thank you very much.

And then they explode.

Or faint.

Chloe could have gone either way.

“I thought I told you I was going to vet each one of your questions to panelists,” she said, crisply.

“Yes. You did say that. But you were busy talking to someone who was showing you how to cure cancer in space—or something like that—and I thought that info was too valuable to interrupt.”

She gave me her best oh my god I can’t believe we’re from the same genetic material face and walked down the corridor toward a display of spacecraft materials—textiles that could absorb great gobs of angry heat.

I’d need to make it up to her. I was here—at NASA’s 100th centennial celebration and symposium—as her plus one. I’d been given access to all the talks, lectures, panel discussions, power point slideshows, and live beam-ins from the ISS.

I was meeting and listening to some of the greatest scientists, engineers, and administrators of the great big NASA family—a family Chloe has been dating for the last four years—and I’d better not be the black-socked and sandled potted uncle who blows it for her by showing up at the posh annual family BBQ asking where I can set up the bouncy castle I’d just rented for the event.

She wants a large, shiny ring from these people. I should really help her get it.

So I sat quietly for the next many hours. A full two days of many hours. I listened to people explain what had been taking place the last one hundred years in labs and clean rooms—that part I called history—and what would  be taking place in the next one hundred years but mostly on spaceships and extraterrestrial terra firma—that part I called magic.

Human exploration, space technology, mission objectives, and interplanetary sleuthwork—a bazillion talks showing what happened to the lecturer when someone made the mistake of saying to them, “Betcha can’t make this happen.”

Think again.

It’s the hair-raising results when smart people get bored and have access to wind tunnels.

Now, I’m not going to say that every single speaker had me at the edge of my seat, wide-eyed, and breathless. There were plenty of rumple-suited, mumbling lectors who lost their places or couldn’t figure out how to work a laser pointer. Moments where I would turn to Chloe and accusatorily whisper, “That’s not a real word,” or request that she explain to me in one sentence or less how nuclear fusion for space travel would work.

But the videos were definitely thrilling bits of rousing drama. In fact, I’m pretty sure that NASA uses one guy from Hollywood to do all the musical score work because all of it was EPIC. Like academy award winning musical compositions. I felt heart-melting stirrings in my soul when seeing a scientist simply unfold some foil. It could have been what he was having for lunch, but I didn’t care. I just want to see if eventually Ridley Scott will ask Matt Damon to play that guy on the big screen.

At the end of the symposium was the massive NASA gala. Tuxedos, sequins, fish and chicken, politicians, musicians, astronauts and journalists. The early computers, the young engineers. The daring old stories and the futuristic visions.

It was a room filled with people who had done great things, and with people who dreamed of doing great things.

It was a room that held the remarkable past and the unfathomable futures. It was filled with an electric energy, the promise of possibility, a gritty determination.

And waiters.

Yeah, it was filled with a lot of waiters too.

I thought that by the end of the night I had done my utmost to behave. To absorb the sagacious words of pioneers at the frontiers of space. I’d kept my hand at my side and simply remained fixed on their words, their proposals, their data, and their accomplishments.

I did not chase people into the bathrooms to ask burning questions about Mars, or the moon, or asteroids, or multi universes.

Except for that one guy, but he hardly counts. Because Chloe doesn’t even know about him, so mums the word on that bit, capisce?

I thought after all my good behavior we could finally go home and find some real sleep, as we’d been crashing in a hotel room whose air conditioner sounded like a gargantuan Kitchen Aid blender stuck on liquefy—or annihilate—samey samey.

But then the gala’s emcee made one last announcement before dismissing us for the night. “We’ve got a surprise for you! There’s a dance party downstairs—a DJ, a sparkly ball, big speakers, and a lot more alcohol. Go have fun NASA!”

I saw Chloe turn to me with a face that displayed the happiness a farm hound shows when he’s spotted a field full of cowpie patties.

“NO,” I said firmly.

“You owe me,” she said.

So we went.

And now I am absolutely positive time travel exists, because I would put a big ole bet that most of these scientists and engineers wouldn’t want any of their dancing film footage to get out into the public—and if there was a threat of doing so, they’d travel back to this event and erase it.

It was like watching colts try to stand immediately following birth.

Okay, to be fair, a couple people knew some archaic dance moves, but seriously, no one should be doing the Robot anymore, or the Running Man, and especially not the Sprinkler.

Except I’m going to make one allowance: there was one move they were all exceedingly good at.

The Moonwalk.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be damn proud of a century’s worth of work. Seeing their past accomplishments was a trip back in time I was honored and astonished to experience.

 

But hearing about their future? Nope. I don’t want to skip over one single second of it.

Congratulations, NASA.

~Shelley

 

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Foot-Slogged Journey from Zero to Hero

According to Google, the definition of the word hero is:

A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A warrior, a knight, a lionheart.

Or we could go with Google’s second definition:

Another term for a submarine sandwich.

I am surrounded 24/7 by heroes. Their voices ring in my ears in pitches that reveal their age and dialects that unmask their country of origin. Occasionally, their speech is so foreign to my mind, I find I must consult etymological dictionaries to make sense of what they say.

Most of these heroes I conjure up myself.

It’s a writer’s process that involves a mixed bag of tools: a few shovels and brushes for the archeological dig to uncover the bones, or a hammer and chisel to chip away at “whatever isn’t the angel,” or, my favorite, the ability to sit with a mental stereogram—where you purposefully lose the eye’s traditional and automatic ability to focus—and then suddenly, mind-blowingly, find a new depth of perspective.

Something magical emerges from something quite ordinary.

I’m used to following these heroes through some journey.

We meet the hero. Something happens to him that forces him to change—despite the fact that he is resistant to change. He’s drawn into some crisis. Things go to hell in a handbasket for a brief period of time. Some metamorphosis occurs, impacting our guy and allows him to respond to the call. And then …

BANG!

He saves the day.

Amen.

I am drawn to these people like a needle pointing north and with the same urgency as when anyone cracks open the door of an oven filled with chocolate chip cookies.

My above definition is a super-simplified explanation of a complex, universal storytelling form called …

The Hero’s Journey.

(Please note: In my head, anytime this phrase is said aloud, its audio quality is enhanced by some impressively epic reverb.)

According to many who’ve studied the great stories of mythology and the broad swath of tales that fit beneath the umbrella of the monomyth, there are a few things necessary in each of these sagas:

A situation, a protagonist, an objective, conflict and disaster, and very important—an opponent.

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My list is by no means complete, but just an “around about” example to further my unfolding tale.

But the hero I’m going to tell you about is not one of mythology or conjured up by my writerly imagination. She is a regular Joe. A flesh and blood body. A mortal, a maiden, and amusingly, mine.

Okay, that last part may no longer really be true, as she leapt from the nest two years ago, but the ownership part isn’t the important bit. It’s the journey. It’s one I was given the privilege to watch close up and from all angles.

You know those first words we record as proud parents in the biblical baby books of unprecedented infant achievement? This is found in hers:

Airpane.

Yeah, not a typo.

One tiny fist with one tiny finger extended upward and continuously, unrelentingly, irritatingly pointed toward the sky. One tiny mouth was forever uttering what two tiny eyes could see and two tiny ears could hear.

Airpane.

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Rare was the day when I had the time to track each one of her identifications—and I certainly did not possess the keen eyesight and impressive auditory range that she seemed to have been born with—but I breezily verified each one of her chirps with some form of response like,

“Wow, good for you, Toots. Keep your eye out for more.” Or,

“Clever girl. How many is that this morning? One hundred? One thousand? I’ve lost count.” Or,

“Okay, I get it. You were a pilot in a previous life. I’ve got to fold laundry.”

When my daughter was about five, two common career themes emerged and spilled out into her everyday life. She was heavily into deciding between becoming a ballerina or an astronaut.

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One day, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her. She was going to have a few follow-up booster shots for some prior vaccinations. Knowing her intense hatred and fear of needles, I tried to plan something fun to follow that doctor’s appointment that would keep her mind off of the wretched shots:

We were going to have lunch … WITH AN ASTRONAUT IN TRAINING!

A family friend was delighted to hear of my daughter’s early interest in space and eager to encourage her tiny spurts of enthusiasm. It was exactly what we needed to follow that pediatrician’s appointment—which was …

Awful.

She hid, she screamed, she threw tongue depressors at the man as if she was barricading herself inside an ice cream truck with nothing but popsicles to use as weapons. She told him she was going to hunt him down in the middle of the night.

Yeah, it was appalling.

Anyway, back at lunch, our astronaut friend began to fill my daughter’s head with all the details involved in becoming “an astronaut,” and at one point launched into the myriad medical tests and examinations one must undergo in order to determine if one is even physically fit enough for space.

My daughter inquired about inoculations.

“Yep,” he said. “Plenty of needles.”

She then turned to me and asked, “Do ballerinas need shots?”

Well, I thought we were finished with our miniature hero’s journey into space and that life would finally return back to normal. I would no longer have to feign interest in her long conversations about the complex water systems aboard the International Space Station which provided astronauts drinking water made from a filtered mixture of recycled shower water, old astronaut sweat … and pee.

Except I was wrong.

Because every day that space interest grew. Whether she was curious about rocket fuel, or space shuttle tiles, or the physics of learning how to fly.

At one point, she said to me she would happily accept a one-way ticket to Mars if it was available and she qualified, and then gave me permission to give away everything in her bedroom to Goodwill.

“What?” I said. “You’re still interested in space?”

Apparently, this was the equivalent of asking, “What? You’re still interested in breathing air?

She struggled with physics like it was some Minotaur she’d regularly sword fight with each night before bed.

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She spent countless, frustrating hours with her teachers in order to understand—not memorize—the facts in front of her.

One of her teachers—a Japanese physicist, whom I swear was the prototype for Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid—threw countless roadblocks in her way.

“Why waste your time with space?” he’d ask her. “Space is for boys. Dolls are for girls.”

She would march from his classroom and turn to face him just before leaving and flip him the bird.

He, on the other hand, would smile with smug contentment after she left, knowing he’d lit a fire beneath someone’s nettled knickers.

Word had it, that this man had come to America with the impassioned notion that the world needed more girls in math.

But apparently, he didn’t want ones that crumpled when facing adversity.

Walking into her bedroom was a bit like being a detective who opened the door belonging to a guy whose crazed neural network encompassed all four walls of the freakishly alarming one room apartment he lived in. Where equations were sprawled across every square inch of space, and yarn connected one spot to another, making the entire room feel like it was a massive, but not yet completed, macramé pot holder.

Understanding that this was a language I would never have the codes to decipher, I’d offer up encouragement from the safest quarters of my own comfort zones—stories.

Seeing her bleary eyes each morning, and the small, but growing bald spot patches where she would regularly grasp at fistfuls of hair—I first assumed out of frustration, but after taking into account the amount of information she was trying to consume, I came to believe it was in an effort to expand skull space—I would offer up my suggestions. I didn’t want her to give up.

“Why don’t we head to the library and check out some super stories about space adventure? Stories like Aliens Love Underpants, or The Martian Chronicles, or Ender’s Game, or (most important) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

But with each book I brought home and encouraged her to read, they ended up buried beneath printed out specs of some new rocket booster. Or NASA flight mission reports. Or CDs that declared, you can learn how to speak Russian and Chinese in under ten minutes a day!

She didn’t want to read a space story.

She wanted to be a space story.

Countless times in this child’s life, I’ve stepped back and looked at the path she was traveling. It’s been riddled with potholes, roadblocks, detours, and burnt bridges. But it has also been abundantly sprinkled with mentors: sensei sword masters, Yodas, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores. Guides who have handed her a sword, a light saber, a wand.

Repeatedly realizing how out of depth I was, the best I could hope to do was step out of her way. I was not going to be the antagonist in my very own child’s heroic journey. I did not want to be her conflict, her disaster, her apocalyptic Death Star.

But I could keep her sword shiny, her lightsaber full of batteries, and her wand connected to Wi-Fi at night whilst she slept.

I looked for the places I belonged in her story. Many times I found it was on the sidelines taking notes. It’s what we writers do to nudge a story into place. It’s what we cheerleaders do to rally our heroes. It’s what we parents do to encourage our children.

Today, this child of mine studies aerospace engineering at MIT and is in the middle of her first summer internship with NASA.

It is a beautiful thing to realize that Thank God, you did not get in the way of someone else’s dream and hopefully, instead, pruned back the prickly path a tiny bit to make the journey a little bit easier.

I celebrate both of my children’s achievements as they come, and tell them about the importance of embracing each one of their failures along the way as well. There is no rising without falling.

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Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we may bring back the bandages and antibiotic ointments that come with life’s splashdowns and spills. It is all part of the hero’s journey and there are no shortcuts around facing your dragons.

Today I am so happy for this child I find myself nearly bursting with joy. I seriously just want to take a bite out of her.

I’m guessing she will taste something like a submarine sandwich.

~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 2)

I couldn’t sleep last night. In my head, all I could think about was that tomorrow was Launch Day—the culminating event of a two week, end of high school senior project my eighteen-year old daughter was tackling. The title of the adventure was Project SkyHAB (for Sky High Altitude Balloon). But I referred to it fondly as One Teenager’s Dream to Make it Rain in Space.

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In order to fully understand the impossibility of success for this operation, you must catch up. Read this. It’s part one. The rest of us will wait while you’re gone. Hurry up.

Alrighty then, now that we’re all on the same page, it will not come as a surprise to find out I was assigned to be Head of Mission Control. That meant I would need to be glued to the monitor attached to my computer with no distractions like food or water, and maybe only the occasional gulp of air for the entire four-hour flight. I would need loose fitting clothing and a slickly greased swivel chair. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. There is a bucketload of stress attached to the job, and I’m guessing at some point, someone may consider making a film about it.

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I heard my daughter leave for the launch site just before 5 am, and like most folks in charge of the less physical aspects of a job—particularly those in management—I went back to sleep for a couple of hours. She’d call if there was a snag. I was sure of it.

After a while, those of us who considered ourselves top brass rolled out of bed. The hound, the hellcat, and I all found some grub. One of us was supposed to purchase freeze dried astronaut food as a way of setting the mood and creating a scene, but didn’t. I glared at them both. This was going in the report.

We waited anxiously for the phone call that was to signal the start of the countdown, and bounced around from room to room keeping limber. We did laundry, washed some dishes, pulled a few weeds, and penned yet another lengthy epistle to Carl Sagan, who for some rude reason started ignoring my missives around 1996. I was hoping to Skype with him while the balloon was making its way spacebound.

Apparently, my personal Houston was not going to answer, so I’d have to go it solo. I wasn’t deterred. More donuts for me at the afterglow party once we’d achieved success.

Although I was told to hang tight for the T-minus 60 notification, my anxiety about the many hour delays compelled me to phone the launch site every 30 minutes for an update.

I heard explanations about faulty equipment, excuses that laid blame at the feet of a roll of duct tape, and a lot of foul language. It was a little like attending one of my daughter’s violin gigs.

Wanting to make sure I was totally up to date, I continually refreshed the website that broadcasted the GPS coordinates. It pinged the same longitude and latitude for hours on end. I decided I should be prepared with backups in case of an unforeseen local blackout and a complete loss of power, a massive equipment failure with my desktop, or a solar flare incident that wiped out the one satellite dedicated to me and Project SkyHAB for today.

I called my dad and a friend.

I told them science depended upon their willing participation and announced they would get credit in the report write up sent to NASA.

My dad bargained for a nap mid-afternoon.

I told him this would affect his performance evaluation in the report.

He told me that either he got the nap, or I could go fly a kite.

I reminded him that this was A BALLOON.

There was some terse language about a union, and a reminder that he knew people who worked at the local Pennysaver, so I finally gave in and agreed to the nap. Bad press is not gonna happen on my watch.

At precisely 12:43 pm—or something close to it—I received the much anticipated phone call. My head was in the fridge. I was cleaning chocolate milk off the shelves.

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“WE’VE LAUNCHED!”

“Wait—what?? Where’s the countdown? There was supposed to be a countdown. And I needed to have my people on standby. How could you have already launched when I—”

“MOTHER! ARE YOU TRACKING THE COORDINATES? WHERE IS MY BALLOON?!!”

“Hold on a sec.” I raced to my super slickly greased wheelie chair and tried to get my computer to wake up from sleep mode. It was obviously over-tired from the taxing morning work of refreshing the GPS site and refused to be roused.

“MOTHER?!!”

“Yep, yep … yep, hold on a sec, I’m checking.”

“MOTHER! WHERE IS MY BALLOON!”

The computer screen flared to life. The coordinates flashed in front of me. My heart seized up and stopped beating. “Huh … how bout that.”

“WHAT?”

“It appears your balloon is still at the launch site.”

“NO IT ISN’T!!”

“Says so right here.”

I heard the phone drop and the distant voice of my daughter shouting, “Come back! Wait … come back, baby!”

You want to know what happened next? I’ll bet you do. Let me just say this: it involves a gun, a team of humiliated London policemen and Benedict Cumberbatch. No wait … that’s the contents of the next Sherlock episode I’m about to watch. Sorry.

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Come back next week for the next installment of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 1)

The last two weeks have been a flurry of foam, duct tape, soldering irons, steel wool, motherboards, electrical wire, miniature GPS devices, itsy bitsy video cameras, and big tubs of Ben & Jerry’s strewn about the kitchen counter.

The place is a tip.

It looks like a small Chinese manufacturing plant exploded inside my house.

In reality, my eighteen-year old daughter is nearing completion of her last high school project. For days, she has been walking around with welding glasses perched atop her head, a phone to ‘tech support’ glued to her ear, and a t-shirt that says Stand back. I’m about to try science, hanging from her small frame.

Empty packages from Amazon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and CheapLiquor.com litter the floor—wait … no, that last one is for my project. A massive, torpedo-shaped, blue helium tank that could pass as a NASA test rocket reject stands proudly upright on my front porch and has scared multiple package delivery men sufficiently to phone me from inside their trucks to make sure it was okay to ring the doorbell.

I tell them it’s always a gamble, tank or not.

Currently, this is Launch Day.

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The item to be launched requires descriptive word prowess that does not fall within my wheelhouse. But I’ll give it a whirl. Imagine the balloon that the Wizard of Oz floats beneath when he ditches the whole gang at the send off party. Now picture the “people holding” basket beneath it. But our basket is not so much a basket as it is a lunchbox. But instead of lunch, it carries a tracking device, two Lilliputian-sized video cameras, battery packs that would put an electronics store to shame, allegedly a computer–but it looks to me like a small bomb, and enough compressed foam to make three king-sized mattresses.

I tried slipping in a package of honey-roasted peanuts for in flight snacking, but my hand was slapped away. Like there was room for it anyway.

On top of the basket is a “cloud chamber.” Apparently, this is not where clouds gather to dress, sleep, or make a ruling on legal issues.

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But it is, roughly speaking, where they may relieve themselves. This involves sponges, alcohol and a Plexiglas box. To me this sounds like a frat party. To others, it is considered science. Go figure.

The basket is wrapped in blinding pink and zebra-striped duct tape. There is also a flashing red light that may lead folks to believe there is a small reindeer stuffed into the basket with just enough space for a nose hole.

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All of this is what’s referred to as THE PAYLOAD.

It’s so official sounding. And since I have no idea what the payload actually does, I simply say it with enough emphasis and confidence when telling folks about it that they basically respond the same way I do: with wonderment and awe. Then I rush on to some other topic to save myself from any questions.

It’s been working fairly well, unless I find I’m speaking to a self-proclaimed science geek, in which case I usually then just shout, “Look! An eagle!” and run like hell in the opposite direction. It’s harder to pull that one off in line at the grocery store, but I just don’t have time to finesse my routine.

From what I’ve been told, THE PAYLOAD will be connected to a large balloon, and by large I mean the size of a small house. This floating piece of real estate will be in charge of lift. Especially if the blue tank is truly full of helium and not antediluvian rocket fuel. All together, the project has a snappy scientific name: SkyHAB (sky high altitude balloon).

My daughter, and an extensively interviewed group of volunteers (in total: one other guy who has nothing to do today), have set up the balloon launch site about 80 miles southwest of our house.

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They intend to release the balloon, track the balloon, and finally retrieve the balloon. Well, not so much the balloon as THE PAYLOAD. The balloon will eventually, somewhere around 100,000 feet, reach it’s “combustible threshold.” Boy, am I familiar with that unit of measurement. Then a parachute will—read should—deploy, and down will come cradle, Rudolph and all.

The GPS unit is supposed to allow the launch team the ability to track its whereabouts in order to eventually locate THE PAYLOAD and retrieve the valuable data about how frequently clouds need to use the loo. Or something equally as shocking.

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As we are on the precipice of launching, I must set aside my essays, find myself an inked-stained pocket protector, and create some sort of headgear so that I will look official in my position of Chief Head Scratcher at Mission Control.

Stay tuned, Peakers. I shall return with part two of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. In the meantime, as I sit tracking THE PAYLOAD via GPS, watch this space … no this space … no this space …

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

Boundless talent–okay, some of it has been bound.

Today, a literary feast! I provide below a buffet of edible words and bite-sized bits of authors I highly recommend you get a taste of. (Plus, I answer four questions about my own writing endeavors.)

Facetime-erskine_2_2Participating in a blog hop is a lot more fun than getting a root canal, but not nearly as exciting as winning the National Book Award. Kathy Erskine is one of the only people I know who can speak effortlessly (and humorously) on all these topics and a bucketload more.

One of my all-time favorite authors and a squishable friend, I was more than pleased to throw off my shoes and pick up my pen at Kathy’s invitation to join her in this escapade.

Kathryn Erskine grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools giving an interesting twist to her writing.  She draws on her life stories and world events to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Crystal Kite winner, and Seeing Red, a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book set immediately after the Civil Rights era that questions who we were then and who we are now.

Her upcoming novel, The Badger Knight, is a Middle Ages adventure about a small, sickly teen with albinism who runs off to battle to prove he’s a man — which he succeeds in doing, but not in the way he thought. She is currently working on several more novels and picture books.

She loves travel, taking walks, being in nature, exploring places (any places), laughing, playing games, learning languages (or anything, really, just learning) and eating chocolate.  You can learn more about her at http://www.kathrynerskine.com/Kathryn_Erskine/Home.html or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/kathy.erskine and Twitter at http://twitter.com/KathyErskine.

And now we go to the interviewed portion of the program …

1) What am I working on?

Currently I’m teaming up with Neil Degrasse Tyson in an effort to prove that “black holes are the cosmic mothers of new universes,” but I tell you, it’s tough going. The fact that Neil is wholly unaware of my participation is irrelevant, but I am on that team 100%. The research is arduous; the backlash from some of the world’s persuadably arthritic scientists is a wall of resistance we’re trying to push through. But Neil and I are optimistic.

On a smaller scale of the cosmos, my writing projects are zipping along at what feels like light speed, but is likely clocked at effortful chugging.

DEAR OPL, my middle grade humorous novel about a pre-diabetic thirteen-year old struggling with food and grief, signed with Sourcebooks and will be published June 2015. Currently, the focus is all about pesky edits, but then begins the many month long process of countless photo shoots in order to capture a superb author photo. Again I use the term arduous because nothing else seems capable of describing the lengths this team of editors, marketers, and publishers will go to in order to create the final product. I’m really hoping we don’t end up going with a selfie.

Any leftover time that hasn’t been allocated to either Neil or Opl is directed toward rewrites of two other novels which are dueling in battle to secure the first place position of next in line to publish. The clash is bloody and deafening, and I am nearly at the point where I tell them that I’m either going to flip a coin or mash them both together into one story. It’ll end up being a manuscript about the reclaiming of Scotland’s independence led by a band of mythological fairies. I’m not getting a lot of positive vibes from that choice though.

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2) How does my work differ from others of this genre?

Not everyone makes the decision to mix NASA with obesity and diabetes—and I’ve had my fair share of criticism—but I’m a risk taker. Keeping the two separate is what we’ll likely end up going with, but I’m sure somewhere there’s a Venn diagram that will support my theory that some crossover data exits.

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Still, if we’re strictly speaking of my middle grade novel, I’d have to say that writing about regrettable and distressing topics such as those that are plaguing our children today may flag my work with labels that indentify necessary issues. Adolescent or adult, many of us have elevated levels of stress and anxiety we’re battling. Sadly, we’re using Twizzlers and Moon Pies as our swords and shields.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Writing is what keeps my spirits afloat until I can finish the blueprints of the small moonshine still I’m designing for the backyard. As my rotgut enterprise would be an illegal one, I have been advised to continue championing attention to less illicit endeavors like campaigns for adolescent healthy eating, self-confidence, and encouraging kids to make the impossible dream of scoring perfectly on all standardized tests a reality simply by giving up all fun and sleep. Although I might drop the last one.

4) How does your writing process work?

Wait … there’s a process?

Alright then, my process is this: I wake up and do my morning ablutions, throw in a load of laundry, feed anyone staring longingly at the fridge or pantry shelves, clean the kitchen counter of teenage detritus—bowls, glasses, calculus notes, Ben & Jerry tubs, highlighters, iPhone cords, physics books, socks, glue, receipts from the last six months stored in the glove compartment of someone’s car that were finally brought inside to be filed, tea cups, and a thank you note from NASA, do the dishes, clean out the cat litter—I could go on, but I’ve got to stop because I’ve just heard gunfire outside.

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… Everything’s fine. It was a small scuffle between the two fellows who are digging out the spiritus frumenti foundation. We talked it out, I confiscated their muskets—and the jug of hooch they were arguing over, and gave them each a granola bar. What can I say? They’re cousins. And each other’s uncle. Welcome to Virginia.

So writing then, yes? At some point, in between a few rounds of all the above, I find my desk and start thinking about just how funny diabetes and obesity are. And this is the hard part, because they aren’t. But that’s the beauty of humor. You have to work to make the painful and the prickly into knee-slapping subjects to occasionally attract the desired eyeballs away from YouTube or Xbox or computer science how-to-hack manuals. It involves a lot of bathroom breaks, and I try everything out on the hound before I write it down.

It’s not a process for everyone, but it is a process, and I am all about action. Just ask Neil. He knows.

No wait … he actually doesn’t.

~~~~~~~~~~

And now, may I introduce three fantastic writers who should start showing up on your radar. Firstly, let’s meet Deborah Prum.DebCropped_2_copy (761x800)

Deborah M. Prum has a heart for reluctant readers and those who struggle with learning disabilities.  Her YA novel, FATTY IN THE BACK SEAT, is about 15 year-old Cuss, who is challenged by undiagnosed learning disabilities. Fatty_in_the_Back_SeatTold with humor and sensitivity, the book does not sugarcoat issues yet offers hope to readers. An audio book version will soon be available.

Her interactive, multi-touch iBook, CZARS AND CZARINAS, is designed to engage reluctant readers. TINYThe book is a humorous and anecdotal account of the first nine centuries of Russian history.  It includes: an introductory song, slide shows, charts, portraits that speak to you, various sound effects for artwork (bells ringing, horses whinnying, thunder, etc.)    You can visit Deb at:  www.deborahprum.com

Next up is none other than my extraordinary partner in crime (or cartoon), Robin Gott.

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Robin ( Rob) Gott grew up in North London, England, in the house once inhabited by the boy who would grow up to become Boris Karloff. Scared away by the ghost of the famous horror film actor, the family moved to a house in Stansted in Essex, previously owned by Douglas Fairbank’s Junior’s daughter, and the venue of a Rat Pack party or two.

Whether all this show business history had any effect on the youthful Robin is food for thought, but he did drift into working in the film and TV animation in London, as an artist, and later working with story development. In 1994 he packed his bags, moved to Malmoe in Sweden, fell in love with the lovely Karin, and there he’s been ever since.

He draws cartoons, acts and writes. He’s written songs, poetry, scripts for graphic novels, two screenplays (one commissioned by Per Holst, a Danish producer) and is now being encouraged by his two boisterous sons, aged 8 and 10, to write a children’s novel. This is very much in the early stages, and at the moment he’s gathering all the ingredients for a hopefully wondrous concoction inspired by Anthony Horowitz, Roald Dahl and of course – Boris Karloff!

Rob loves being with his family, especially at their lakeside cabin nestled cozily in a Swedish forest, fishing, running, cooking, playing guitar and flopping about on sofas, drinking English ale and watching old black and white films.

You can learn more about him at www.robingott.com or on Facebook.

Last, but nowhere near least, is a writing friend I owe a great deal of thanks to for getting my ‘out of shape’ manuscripts fit for publication: Abby Murphy. I will always be grateful for her keen eye and willingness to slog through that which I dump on her desk. She’s just about as good as it gets.

profile_1Abby Murphy is a self-proclaimed history nerd who lives in Providence, RI. She has donned 19th-century clothing to work at a living history museum, pored over manuscripts at a literary agency, and she now teaches middle school students to read, write, and think. She writes YA historical fiction and recently finished a novel based on her great-great-grandmother, who traveled to Europe in the 1890s. You can learn more about her at http://keepthehearthfiresburning.net.

~Shelley

Three days left for the “Help A Teen Do Experiments in Space I Don’t Understand”  fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. If you think space is cool, give it looksee! And a massive thanks to all of you who have already contributed to science. You guys are awesome. 😀

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.