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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rocket’s Red Glare

“Mom. Mom. Mother! LOIS!”

The last one always gets my attention. Yes, I know it’s not my name, but if I’m in a crowd and hear someone shout Mom, a thousand women turn around. This is the pattern of words/bird calls that my kids find necessary to stimulate my consciousness—my awareness of their presence (read demand for attention).

“Yes?” I raised my head to see my daughter standing beside my desk, her face a mixture of annoyance and impatience.

“Let’s go. Hurry up.” She held her iPhone in her hand and beckoned me. A man’s voice chattered through the speakers.

“Who’s on the phone?” I whispered.

She rolled her eyes. “NASA. We’re waitin’ on you now.”

GNC systems are nominal, another iPhone voice chirped.

I looked at my computer’s clock. 11:10 pm. Finally, I was awake for some big aerospace worthy event and not simply going to hear about it the next morning because it took place at 3:52 am and I chose sandman over spacemen.

I leapt from my chair and followed my daughter to the mudroom where we popped on our boots and jackets. Outside, the air nipped at any spots of exposed skin, so I did a little running in place to warm myself. I got shushed for bouncing too loudly and interfering with the crackling sound of our NASA Wallops men. They were ticking off boxes on a long checklist of things that could easily make a team of scientists fall to their knees and weep like children who lost a game of checkers if one of them didn’t get a ‘Thumbs up and go for it.’

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SMA?

SMA is Go.

SMD?

SMD is Go.

NAM?

NASA Advisor Team is ready.

Copy that.

My daughter ran in the house to shut off the kitchen lights, which gave me ten seconds of bouncing to myself. Kinetic energy converts to thermal energy, right? I was trying to think like a scientist. Then I heard her and the Wallops men float down the back porch steps in the dark.

I looked up into the inky black. The stars were crisply sharp tonight. It was as if NASA had done a last minute vacuuming of the sky, ridding it of any dusty bits that might interfere with seeing the rocket launch.

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“What’s our rocket called?” I asked.

“Shhh.”

LADEE is Go for launch.

“Ladee?” I nearly shouted. “As in Bruichladdich? Wahoo!”

“SHHHH!!!”

T minus 90 seconds.

I was thrilled. They named the rocket after my favorite distillery in Scotland. And suddenly I was in desperate need of a dram to celebrate—if not just to warm up.

“I can’t believe they named the rocket after a whisky.”

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Even though it was too dark to see my daughter roll her eyes, I knew it accompanied the tsk sound that came from her mouth. “Mother … *sigh* … the rocket is not named for an alcoholic beverage. LADEE stands for ‘Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.’ Now be quiet.”

“Poetic.”

“SHHH!!”

T minus 35 seconds.

RCO report range go for launch?

Range is Go.

SSC hydraulics internal?

Hydraulics Go.

“Where do we look?” I whispered.

She thrust a sharp finger eastward to the tree line. Even her fingers were shushing me.

I stood on tiptoe to see Wallops Flight Center. It was about one hundred miles away as the crow flies (or the rocket hurls). It turns out that I cannot see one hundred miles away. At that moment, Haggis, my hairy hound, hurled himself out of the house and—keenly aware of the heart-palpitating excitement and the need for speed—ran circles around us while barking.

“MOTHER!”

I grabbed at his collar and pulled him nose to nose. “Be. Quiet.” I pointed at my daughter. “Can’t you hear that her god is speaking?”

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T minus 20 seconds and counting … T minus 15 … T minus 10, 9, 8,

A rocket was hopefully going to the moon. It was so exciting.

5, 4, 3,

I held my breath. I really wanted to bounce.

2, 1, 0, ignition and liftoff of the Minotaur V with LADEE, pursuing a mission about moondust and the lunar atmosphere …

We saw nothing.

Six (static) naught copy (static) mach four … pressure is nominal.

“Where is it?” I whispered, fingers crossed. I really wanted to see my rotgut rocket. My Bruichladdich LADEE. My moonshine heading to the moon.

Pressure is nominal.

What the heck is “nominal?” I don’t want nominal … I WANT VISUAL!

An orange ball rose from beyond the tree line, and I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “There it is! There it is!”

We watched the fire from this tiny toy rocket blaze through the sky, like a slow moving falling star going the wrong way. It was breathtaking.

Our NASA men kept us informed how all the flight instruments and power systems were performing, how the attitudes and flight paths were spot on, to watch for a separation, ignition and burnout because they were all part of the show. It was marvelous.

“How long will it take to get there?” I asked, thinking we might see pictures of its successful arrival online in the morning.

“October 6th.”

“Wha??” I balked at the thought of it. “But the moon is right there.” I pointed to the area I saw it hovering the night before. “It’s like … spitting distance. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” was her answer.

“When are they going to learn that unmanned missions are a waste of fuel? They should have just asked Tom Hanks to drive. He knows the way.”

My daughter turned to face me and sighed. “Goodnight, Lois.”

I blew a kiss at the tiny orange dot. “Good luck, laddie.”

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~Shelley

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

Mission Impossible

It seems one of my kids has crossed over a great divide: the span that bridges the gap between child and adult.

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Well … sort of.

Maybe she hasn’t made it entirely to the other side. Maybe she’s over the apex and is now rifling through her handbag, foraging for her passport. But she’s close. And it’s a little scary.

Last week I sent her off to her last “summer camp.” I thought it would be fun, a good distraction, and even engaging.

I was wrong.

It was demanding and arduous, requiring a Herculean effort on all participants. This was not a camp; it was a gathering of overgrown grey matter.

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She did not make fast friends, she met her future colleagues. There was no braiding of hair or singing Kumbaya around the campfire. There was no macramé class, no hiking and no canoeing toward the sunset.

Instead, there was, “Houston? We’ve got a problem,” and all the panic that goes with it.

To make things even more adult like, there was very, very, very little sleep.

You don’t often hear kids remark that one of the highlights of their experience was the mind-blowing hallucinations that came as a result of sleep deprivation. And not the kind of sleep deprivation that comes from watching just one more Netflix movie while you’re all crammed into a dorm room trying to sneak past curfew.

There was no curfew.

No one encouraged you to catch forty winks. Blinking in general meant you took your eye off the ball.

And the ball was basically a mission to Mars.

Now let me be clear—and I have to do this because in the past I have been über criticized for calling this chunk of time a SPACE CAMP. It wasn’t.

Space camp is like this:

“Trainees will experience walking on the moon in our 1/6th gravity chair to feel what it’s like to work in a frictionless environment. Trainees will climb the tallest mountain on Mars on our Mars Climbing Wall and experience 4Gs of liftoff force on the Space Shot™ simulator. They’ll get an astronaut’s view of the earth while watching amazing films in our IMAX® Spacedome Theater and Digital 3D Theater.”

Space camp is interchangeable with a fabulous day at Disneyland.

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This sector of summer was more about calculating payloads, computing appropriate radiation levels and evaluating various chemical propellants. Yeah, hard to imagine any of them snapping a quick “selfie” to post on Facebook as they’re standing proudly in front of a white board covered in nothing but mathematical equations. Woot woot!

In fact, when hearing the ‘Welcome to Langley’ opening words from the program director, the first phrase was actually, “I hope you all came prepared to cry.”

I suppose the experience could be likened to Vegas Week from American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, where you are put to the most strenuous physical tests of your mind and body, surpassing your limitations, and finding each participant sliced away from the competition and sent limping home. Except that at the end, if you survive, there is no golden mic, rainfall of confetti or monetary prize to announce your accomplishment. What you do find, however, is a pale-faced, red-eyed, polyester-suited man, slogging under the weight of way too many lanyard-strung ID tags who hands each survivor a coffee-stained card with a quiet remark of, “I think we may have a folding chair and a small cubicle for you in Houston. Let’s keep in touch.”

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In fact, the whole Let’s keep in touch business is pretty laughable, as once these folks realize they’ve found a fresh resource, ripe for stripping and renewable simply by topping up with Red Bull, I’m guessing one ubiquitous camera, belonging to a small satellite in space, will then be assigned to do nothing but track this collective pack of brain cells.

Maybe I’m growing delusional and paranoid, but just yesterday when I was sorting through a basket of clothes to be laundered, my daughter rushed down from her bedroom and frantically searched for a NASA pin that had been secured to her shirt for the entirety of her time at the institute.

“We’re not supposed to take these off. They’re our new good luck charms.”

Okay, she didn’t exactly say that, and that didn’t exactly happen, but I need something to explain last night, when I was preparing dinner, and my daughter was in the kitchen sorting through colorful college brochures, narrowing down her choices, when the phone rang, and after answering it, I hear an unrecognizable voice on the other end say, “Tell her to go with the blue one.”

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Generally speaking, I do believe the experience of participating in a high stress, nerve racking simulated mission, coached by engineers, astronauts and former prison guards was a success for both parties involved. My daughter discovered the joy of being surrounded by teenagers who had close to a mirror image of her brain and was finally free to speak without someone interrupting her every five seconds with a, “Wait … huh?” And NASA, after ransacking the brains of these young minds in an effort to possibly cull together any information that their home teams had yet to think of, now finds themselves with an improved launch date for a manned mission to Mars. Instead of May, 2046, they have proudly announced: May (maybe April) 2046.

All in all it was an eye-opening experience, especially for her, because remember … the difference between success and failure of a mission may all come down to the batting of an eyelid.

“Houston? … Uh, Houston?”

“Zzzzz …”

~Shelley

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