Be Colorful! Celebrating Pete Conrad

Pete racing on the weekendImage

(photo credit gettyimages.com)

“If you can’t be good, be colorful,”   said astronaut Pete Conrad (1930-1999).   This remark captures why this guy will always be my favorite astronaut.   He could do all the aviator hero stuff: hotshot test pilot, raced cars in Formula V and SCCA, flew Gemini V and XI, commanded Apollo XII, helped develop and flew Skylab, then went on to an illustrious career in private aviation industry.  “Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie,” said Michael Collins of his fellow astronaut. 

Pete was a badass while laughing at himself, because even though he was in a deadly serious business he never took himself too seriously. Simply, he was not an arrogant prick. I’ve always loved people who can pull off bravado without boasting, who can pull off snark-free swagger.   And if they can be funny while doing something amazing —  sheeeejuz!  Mercutio and Prince Hal: those are my type of guys.

Pete nearly fell asleep while sitting atop the Saturn V rocket before the Apollo 12 launch, leading everyone including Walter Cronkite to believe he was incredibly relaxed.  He later admitted he was drowsy because he’d lost so much sleep due to the inherent stress and yes, fear, involved in preparation for a lunar mission.  Then there was the time he claimed that he tried, really tried to get Deke Slayton, Neil Armstrong, and a bunch of other guys to slow down their wild Corvette stampede on the freeway before they got arrested, and they did get arrested. Sure, Pete. 

Out of all the pantheon of space heroes, I still flip to “C” for Conrad in the index of any new space book I pick up. My heart skips a beat if I find a story or photo of him that I’ve never heard or seen before. I swooned when I saw this shot of him (above) standing next to a Porsche 911 race car at Daytona International Speedway in the early 1970s. My favorite astronaut!  And my favorite car! Together! My circuits overloaded and fried. (And yes, space freaks, I had to take a moment to sigh, collect myself and switch SCE to AUX.  My admiration is no doubt muddled with some loving image of my own father, another gap-toothed, blue-eyed blonde whose general cruising speed in those days was 100 mph in a car or on a motorcycle.)

Pete Conrad could find the funny side of any situation.  Probably his best-known quip is the one he delivered as he stepped out of the Apollo 12 lunar module. By this time, Apollo 11 had flown and Pete’s colleague Neil Armstrong had delivered his famous “one small step” line. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci didn’t believe that Armstrong conjured this line by himself.   Pete argued with her that he could deliver a flip remark completely unscripted by NASA as he stepped onto the moon’s surface. The diminutive, 5’6 Conrad said, “Whoopee! Man, that might have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” Pete later said, “If I could get $500 off a Communist that was pretty good,” referring to the sum of money he bet the leftist writer. He won the bet but never saw his $500.

His sense of humor was not always appreciated. In fact, he didn’t make the cut for the original Mercury 7 because he was a smartass. After being subjected to the usual degrading and grueling physicals in the astronaut screening process, he decided to have some fun at a psychological test. After showing him all kinds of Rorschach ink blobs, the testers showed him a blank card. Pete deadpanned, “It’s upside down.” He also purportedly delivered his enema bag and stool sample with an extra flourish.   The selection committee deemed him “unsuitable for long duration spaceflight.”

A few years later he got a second chance to apply to the Astronaut Corps. This time he made it. There’s a shot from 1962 showing “The New Nine” as they were called, the next batch of astronauts who would form the backbone of the Apollo program. Pete, who became known for his sharp clothes and extensive hat collection, already displays sartorial originality. The other guys are eager and earnest looking in serious dark suits, while Pete flanks the group in a dapper light colored suit looking ready for a garden party or the Kentucky Derby.

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 The New Nine, 1962  ( photo credit digitalprojects.libraries.uc.ed)

After nearly dying of boredom when he ran out of things to say to Gordo Cooper on an 8-day Gemini V flight, Pete insisted that crews be allowed to take music on their missions for the sake of entertainment.   Even without music, Pete provided his own soundtrack of tuneless humming, gum chewing, and profanities, which cracked up countless technicians, flight simulator operators, and other astronauts. NASA administration was a little apprehensive … what if he says stuff like this during the mission … like, on national television? He didn’t. Pete developed a very precise sense of how much he could get away with. He refrained from his plan to somersault across the deck of the aircraft carrier after Gemini V, when he spotted red carpets, admirals, and a brass band.  The recording loop of Apollo 12 is full of Pete’s unexplained laughter on the lunar surface.  Today we know that his buddies tucked pictures of Playboy centerfolds into his mission checklist with notes reminding him to “check the protuberances” — on the lunar surface, of course.  By that time, Pete knew enough not to explain his laughter.

His Apollo crew loved him. Pete, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean roared around the Cape and Cocoa Beach in a trio of matching gold Corvettes, throwing down the gauntlet to all the other crews hoping to express their solidarity through a macho display of horsepower. These 1969 models had four speed manual transmission and 429 cubic inch/390 horsepower engines. They were part of a sweet lease deal that astronauts had with GM dealer Jim Rathmann. At this writing, to my knowledge, only Alan Bean’s Vette has resurfaced as has been restored to pristine, Apollo-era condition.

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The jester of the Astronaut Corps, Pete seemed to find happiness in everything he did, never waxing poetic, weepy, or profound about his moonwalk. “Super!” he’d say, “Really enjoyed it!” he’d tell inquiring fans about his mission, like he’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Sometimes space fans would feel cheated because they’d want more strum und drang, and he just wouldn’t give it to them. Wasn’t in his nature.

That’s not to say, however, that he always had an easy time. Born June 2, 1930, Charles Conrad, Jr. was born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, only to see his father’s fortune and his parents’ marriage crumble in the aftermath of the Depression.   During his school years, he struggled with dyslexia, then an unrecognized disorder. By sheer application and a systematic approach to study, he overcame his academic setbacks sufficiently to attend and graduate from Princeton. In perhaps the saddest chapter of Pete’s life, his youngest son Christopher died from lymphoma at the age of 28.

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Apollo 12 liftoff   (photo credit aerospaceweb.org)

Crash!  On November 14, 1969, the launch of Apollo 12 was probably the scariest liftoff of the whole Apollo program.   The giant Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning, causing power in the command module to go haywire. “The flight was extremely normal . . . for the first 36 seconds,“ said Pete, “then got very interesting.” The crew was perplexed, until flight controller John Aaron suggested switching SCE to AUX. Luckily, Alan Bean knew the correct switch to hit and Pete’s hand never twisted the abort handle. The mission was on target and moonbound, as Pete guessed correctly that they’d been hit by lightning. Listening to a recording today, the crew’s sangfroid is remarkable.  

I’m not sure what I was doing that day, fifty miles up the coast in New Smyrna, but it’s likely there was a launch party on a Friday with lots of booze. Some of our neighbors worked at the Cape, and as a four-year-old rugrat I had a ringside, knee-high view of grownup hijinks and excitement. I remember lots of terrazzo floors and soggy cocktail napkins in those days.

After a pinpoint landing on the moon, a successful moonwalk, and while piloting the lunar module Intreped to rendezvous with command module Yankee Clipper, Pete asked “rookie” Alan Bean if he’d like to take the controls. Usually tasks were strictly defined — and monitored by Mission Control. Pete generously let the younger man handle the craft during a burn on the dark side of the moon, when NASA would be none the wiser, giving Al a chance he’d never get otherwise.   This is what I mean by badass: doing something so difficult yet being so relaxed and competent that you can make a generous, fun, and selfless gesture to another human being.

This post barely glosses the surface of who Pete Conrad was and what he did.  So many people actually met him, knew him, and have wonderful stories to tell that they’ve shared online. 

In 1999, Pete’s luck ran out and he died at the age of 69 after sustaining internal injuries in a motorcycle accident.  As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, he exited life the way he lived it:  having fun, moving fast, pushing the envelope.   At a memorial service at Johnson Space Center, his old buddy Al Bean pretended to “channel” his spirit, and claimed that Pete requested colored lights on his memorial tree at JSC.  And that’s what happened. The grove at JSC twinkles with white lights for astronauts no longer with us; except for Pete’s tree, which twinkles bright red. As Al Bean said, he was both good and colorful.

Happy Birthday, Pete Conrad! There are so many of us on this earth who will always miss you.

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(photo credit arlingtoncemetery.net)

 

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Astronaut Shot Down By a Nun

Up for sale at Heritage Auctions (minimum bid $1,000) is a great series of letters between Apollo astronaut Jack Swigert (the cute swinging single one in Apollo 13) and actress Dolores Hart.  Hart was a successful and beautiful actress with a firm Catholic faith — so firm that she became a nun in 1963.  It is cute to see this tough aviator/astronaut write her a fan letter, then eventually work up his nerve to ask her for a dinner date.  She turned him down, and he backpedalled and acted like he wasn’t really asking her for a date.  I’m attaching notes and images from heritageauctions.com.   This was featured in one of my favorite space blogs, lightthiscandle.com.  Dolores had some DAMN strong faith.  I would not have refused a date with Jack Swigert!

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Jack Swigert Archive of Letters to Actress Dolores Hart, 1961-1963. Jack Swigert was chosen as an astronaut in April 1966 as part of the fifth NASA group. Previous to that he was an Air Force pilot flying jet fighters in Korea and then a test pilot for Pratt Witney and North American Aviation. He is best known as the last-minute substitute for Ken Mattingly as command module pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Dolores Hart was a talented and beautiful young actress who made her debut in Loving You as Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1957. She later appeared with Elvis again in King Creole. After several successful movies including a part as a nun in Francis of Assisi, she actually did join a religious order in 1963, becoming a Roman Catholic nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Pilot and future astronaut Jack Swigert read an article about her in Parade Magazine in 1961 and, as a Catholic himself, was impressed with her religious views (and beauty, of course) and started a correspondence with her. These are the letters he wrote her over a two year period. Most are well-worn with notes written on them by Hart or her secretary. Also included in the archive are various clippings about his career. Overall good. Excerpts follow.

 

October 22, 1961, two pages handwritten, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Without a doubt you’ll get many letters but it is still a hope that this one gets by the many mail openers- and to you personally.
“Just wanted to express my thought on the fine article in Parade Magazine— especially about your views on religion and its place in your career. To be sure there isn’t much that reaches the public from that field which shows religion has much of a place-especially from the Catholic side. It is good to see that religion has the meaning and importance to you.
“In my case, the Jesuit education in Denver gave me the foundation and I think my test pilot occupation helps me to retain the importance of religion which sometimes escapes in a modern world… This wasn’t meant to be a religious letter. Impetuous as pilots sometimes are, just thought you might like to know someone from the other side of the country likes your ideas and wishes you well. Sincerely Jack (Swigert)”

 

March 31, 1962, two pages handwritten with envelope, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Have an airplane for the Easter weekend and will be westward bound. L.A. being only about 1½ hours from Denver should put me there sometime Saturday morning. If you have no plans for Saturday evening- or the afternoon for that matter it would be a most pleasant end to a long trip to have dinner and a drink together.
“Thanks again for the pictures and taking the time to answer my letter about the Parade article… With best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

April 18, 1962, one page typewritten (carbon), Hart to Swigert.
“Dear Jack: It was most thoughtful of you to include me in your Easter holiday plans, but, unfortunately, I am unable to accept your invitation to dine with you during your visit to Los Angeles… Sincerely. Dolores Hart”

 

May 9, 1962, three pages handwritten with envelope and clipping, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter must have reached Conn. Just about the time I was leaving California for Denver and points East…
“Imagine our two professions are much alike. There’s a challenge and, with something different all the time, it certainly never gets to be the 9 – 5 routine. But after Glenn’s ride it’s obvious where the future is in the flight test field… Sincerely Jack”

 

June 2, 1963, two pages with envelope and color photo, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter came while I was at the Manned Space Conference in Dallas…
“Have I been guilty of creating the wrong impression?… Remember- it was an article about you in Parade that prompted my letter way back when. Felt that an article which revealed high religious and moral values together with intelligence and femininity was too unusual a combination for modern Hollywood to go unacknowledged… Best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

Swigert, who died of cancer in 1982, never married. This was addressed in his New York Times obituary: “He was a lifelong bachelor, and some of the other astronauts, all of whom were married, joked that he was somewhat of a swinger. One of his sisters once said he had ‘a girl in every airport from coast to coast.’ He used to say that he was not a confirmed bachelor but that it was just that he had just not met the right woman. As an astronaut, Mr. Swigert lived in apartment near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which he had outfitted with a beer spigot in the kitchen and an elaborate stereophonic sound system.” Here is evidence that he did try to meet the right woman in the early sixties but things just didn’t work out. Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000.

 

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All Our Names

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a voracious reader, a lifetime book slut, carrying multiple books everywhere I go like a security blanket.   Here’s a review of the latest novel I’ve read.  I think just about anyone and everyone would enjoy it.  Originally written for the Friends of the New Smyrna Beach Regional Library website,  it is cross posted here by kind permission of Friends President Diana Bardyn.  (folnewsmyrna.org)

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells at least one love story. The ending made me cry, and it will probably make you cry, too. Now that I’ve got that out on the table, here are some of the other things this wonderful novel is: it ‘s a tale of friendship, of being an outsider, of losing and forming an identity. This is a novel of political and social upheaval as seen from the personal micro-threads of its main characters.

One narrator is a young man who leaves his family farm in Ethiopia for the busy city of Kampala, Uganda. We never learn his given name, although he alludes to a long string of family names and titles. He makes friends with another young man from similar circumstances, who calls himself Isaac. Both young men dream of achieving greatness in the heady days of post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. These are the days where the dream of Pan African freedom is quickly fading and corrupt leaders like Idi Amin have twisted the dream into a revolutionary nightmare.

Even though they are too impoverished to afford tuition, the narrator and Isaac gravitate to the university. Transforming themselves from outsiders, they gradually make their reputations as campus radicals. Isaac, the braver and bolder of the two, forges an identity by attaching himself to a revolutionary figure named Joseph. His transformation from a saucy student rebel into a deadly serious thug, and the personal sacrifices he makes for power, are heartrending.   The narrator’s friendship with Isaac endures, however, and both young men are forced into political exile after a violent coup.  Mengestu skillfully withholds just enough information to let us know that one of the young men escapes to America with the identity and passport bearing the name “Isaac Mabira.”

The second narrator is Helen, a young social worker in a small Midwestern town. Her job has eroded her idealism and she’s running low on compassion. She takes on the assignment of foreign exchange student Isaac. Not particularly curious about his background, she’s happy that by taking Isaac to the university library and helping him shop for Goodwill furniture, she can avoid going to the hospital to visit terminally ill clients, prison inmates, and boring staff meetings.

On the surface, Helen and Isaac have little in common but their youth. Helen, however, is as weary of her hometown as Isaac was desperate to escape his Ethiopian village. Although she still lives in her childhood home, Helen has little to say to her husk of a shell-shocked mother who has never recovered from the departure of Helen’s father.   Helen regularly packs boxes of belongings and puts them in the basement until her bedroom is nearly empty. She’s been leaving for years, even though she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Isaac likes Helen’s loud voice and she, full of misconceptions about Africans, is surprised that he isn’t tiny and malnourished. They share an offbeat sense of humor and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Isaac offers little information about his recent past, and Helen doesn’t ask.

Isaac forces Helen to see her hometown through an outsider’s eyes. As they grow closer, Helen is forced to reckon with a post-Civil Rights American town in the 1970s that is not quite ready for an interracial couple.   In one painful scene, Helen takes Isaac to a diner she’s frequented since childhood. As people stare and the waitress suggests that Isaac takes his food in a Styrofoam to-go box, Isaac insists that they stay put and finish their meal. Isaac, no stranger to the daily reality underlying “progress,” says, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces. “ Helen comes to realize that the Isaac she loves is just the tip of the iceberg; the parts he’s kept from her are dangerously vast, murky, and unknowable to her.

Mengestu cleverly builds suspense and keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. He achieves this disorientation partly through alternating narrators, switching from Uganda to the Midwest. Not only do we not know until fairly late in the novel which Isaac Helen is falling in love with, but also there’s a tense time constraint to their affair. Isaac’s student visa will expire in one year. One day, Isaac gets shattering news from Uganda. His identity unravels, and the only person who can help him weave a new one is Helen, if she can stand to hear the stories he has to tell.

Author Mengestu is listed on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of gifted young writers. He has written two previous novels about the Ethiopian diaspora, but this is the first book told partially from the perspective of a native-born American. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to America at an early age. Although he’s covered parts of Africa as a journalist, he has said that the story of the two Isaacs does not reflect any specific chapter of Ugandan history, just the general progression from idealism, to violent revolution, to escape and exile.  And love, as always, is universal.

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Mother of Reinvention

I haven’t posted since December! I’ve had some sadness and a severe case of blogger’s block. Every topic I thought of just made me go, “Meh!”

 

2014-03-25 14.19.54(Sculpture at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) 

A couple weeks ago I toured Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a friend for no other reason than we both love architecture and airplanes. A man on our tour asked, “Do you ladies have children or grandchildren going here?”  My friend, never one to shrink from male misassumptions, said, “No, we don’t. What makes you say that? Maybe we’re here because we’re prospective students.” Why not? I thought. Given the time and money, both of us could learn to fly and start new careers. While this might not happen literally, it’s a good metaphor for starting afresh, finding my wings, and flying again.

People, I have been SO depressed! My firecracker mother-in-law who lived with us passed away in January. Gloria was a sharp lady who loved fiercely but didn’t suffer fools.   She’d be the first person to feed stray cats and help those in need, but I’ve seen her say, “Go fuck yourself,” and slam the door in somebody’s face if she thought she was being swindled. Her death really flattened our household, and my husband and I had a couple of rough months where we woke up sweating every night reliving scenes from Gloria’s final days and wondering if we made the right decisions about her care.

I’ve had my own personal mortality lesson in the form of menopause. I have staunchly resisted writing about it because I’m embarrassed by it. I’m just so tired of menopause jokes, complaints, and stereotypes, many of which I lived through at work.  I remember so many coworkers having hot flashes and putting mini-fans on their desks.  They’d crank the air conditioning so low I’d be wearing three sweaters. I remember their snappiness and brain farts being chalked up to, “Well, she’s just going through menopause.” Part of me always thought they just needed to get some hormones, get their acts together, and quit making the rest of us suffer.

For the record, I’m now saying, “Respect, ladies! You were NOT kidding!” OMG. The horror is real: the mood swings, the energy crashes, the boob sweats, the 20-30 lb weight gain. I’m looking in the mirror and going, “Who the hell is that?” They say people start to resemble their dogs. Sure enough, I am getting jowls like one of my pugs or bulldogs that render me unfit for selfies. So you won’t be seeing too much of me on Facebook or Instagram. Just look at my pugs and pretend it’s me.

No energy. No joke.   One trip to the grocery store and I’d be down for a nap.  And by a nap, I mean a nap that lasted the rest of the day. The only thing I had energy for was Pinterest, to the extent that friends wanted to do a Pintervention. “That’s the only way I know you’re still alive — I see you pinning online,” they said. It was easier to gather images of other people’s accomplishments, their crafts, their clothes, their art, their lives, than repair my own underwhelming existence. Luckily, I had a few freelance writing assignments that kept me going.

Finally, bored by my own inertia, I found a way out of zombie land by finding a good doctor and taking hormone therapy.   I know there are risks, but they’ve changed my life. Without hormones I might seriously be wandering the house listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” wondering when and how and why I killed everybody in the house.

 

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So, yep, on to reinvention.

My heroes are usually not other writers. Writers are too introspective and self-loathing. I like people of action, like astronauts, aviators and racecar drivers. I think what I like about them is that they are always striving, that they are constantly busy, they are always focused on goals, and they don’t let themselves stop moving long enough to get mired in torpor or self-pity.  In the depths of my depression this winter I read two astronaut autobiographies: Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins (1974) and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield (2013).

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Collins, of course, was part of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and he, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon with Apollo 11. Canadian Hadfield just transitioned out of his career as a Space Shuttle astronaut and a commander at the International Space Station. He’s an endearing media personality, particularly famous for singing and recording David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on orbit at the International Space Station.

These astronauts come from two very different eras of spaceflight, but they share a great deal. Both guys are given to philosophical reflection, high scorers on the scale of astronaut-thoughtfulness. I was struck, however, that their trajectories were full of frustratingly small baby-steps. They sometimes took pilot assignments that seemed a universe away from joining NASA, career moves all over the world (that their families patiently endured) while they wondered if they’d ever go to space. Before Hadfield, there’d never been a Canadian astronaut, and he sometimes questioned if it were at all possible. But they kept moving, flying, persistently taking opportunities to learn new skills each and every day. Their careers serve as reminders to all of us, every day, to DO something towards being the person we want to be, to work towards the job we want to have.

I also had the happy experience of going to the Tico Airshow, something I’ve always wanted to do.  I was not just cheered up: I was ecstatic.  The sheer beauty of the planes and aerobatic feats was astounding,  and I thought, “Nobody here, whether they’re flying or watching, is just sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.” I became the four-year-old girl whose dad took her to the airport to see planes taking off, who wriggled with wonder at the speed, the noise, the surge into the air.

So it is time to be active and take steps every day. Be the mother of my own reinvention. I think my next few blogs will be dedicated to people who relentlessly (re)invent themselves– either by choosing a life of boldness or by making a midlife career change that catapults them into the bliss of doing what they love.

And just for the record: no, I am not giving up my Pinterest addiction. And yes, I actually do admire writers, too. Here’s one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

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April 8, 2014 · 12:32 am

Some Enchanted Evening . . . You May Meet A Yeti

When the weather gets nippy, I dream of sasquatches, or more specifically, the yetis of Tibet crunching through the snow of the Himalayan Mountains.   The reputed hairy ape man, the abominable snowman, haunted my imagination when I was young.

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Can’t believe I just found an online image of this book! What a treat!  The Abominable Snowman by Eric Norman was one of my favorites.  This picture used to TERRIFY me.  Look at this psychologically tortured face.  Those teeth!  It evokes loneliness and alienation, a visual mashup of a caveman, polar bear, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a pulp manifestation of T.S. Eliot’s poetic moanings.  (And notice I did not mention Duck Dynasty.)  For an 8-year-old, it took some nerve to even pull this one off the shelf because the cover image was so disturbing.

The only person more terrified of the abominable snowman’s image and adventures than I was my younger brother Charles, nicknamed Bubba.  Out on the sun porch with cast off paperbacks  that were yellowed with sunlight and dog pee, I force-read him passages of The Abominable Snowman.  Upsetting my younger brother was a fringe benefit of  scaring myself.

There were lots of books on the shelves.  There were Lord of the Rings paperbacks, and I absorbed the hills and dales of Middle Earth maps before I actually read the trilogy.  There was also a grown up, titillating biography of David Niven who, among other things, recounted his first sexual experiences in England, which I barely understood.   But the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and David Niven paled beside those of the yeti.

The yetis, or abominable snowmen, were always leaving mysterious footprints, eating the dogs of trackers and tossing their carcasses, emitting unearthly roars at night that made villagers’ blood run cold, throwing trees around and leaving smelly patches of fur everywhere, breaking into monasteries and stealing food from monks,  leaving posters around for rave clubs that nobody could ever find (just kidding about the last part).  In short, this was just enough to tantalize and terrify everyone, and of course, nobody could catch a yeti on camera.  Many experts, however, attested that they were real, and that was good enough for Bubba and me.

“Stop!  Stop!” Bubba would scream.   When we could take no more of the yeti’s misdeeds, one of us would toss the book across the room like it was on fire.

Our favorite story was both scary and naughty.  It involved a man’s wife who mysteriously disappears for a few months.  Search parties can’t find her. But lo! One day she reappears on her own recognizance, as they say, walks through the back door, and explains to her husband that she had lived as the Yeti’s mate.   “I am expecting his child,” she said, as she rubbed her abdomen.  Or maybe it was belly.  (I haven’t read this book  in years, so I might have the exact words mixed up.)

I’m sure we looked up the word “abdomen” in the dictionary,  hoping it meant  something really nasty, and we couldn’t be more thrilled when we discovered it  partially involved the lower stomach.  Anything “down there” was fascinating, the regions of pee, poo, and sex, although we didn’t really understand what sex was at that age.  There was something more provocative about this story than any Playboy or Penthouse magazine that I found in my dad’s nightstand.  The lady had done IT with a yeti.  Whatever IT was.  Top that, Miss January!  Bet you never made love to a yeti in a hot tub.

“’She rubbed her abdomen’! Did you hear that?   ‘She rubbed her ABdomen’!”  I would intone, like an English professor teasing out the impact of Shakespeare’s lines to a freshman class.  Bubba’s hand would fly to his mouth in shocked horror.  Could there be anything naughtier, dirtier, more verboten?    Like all the kids in your class could pull down their underwear simultaneously, and it wouldn’t even be a runner-up to the bride of the abominable snowman rubbing her belly.

This lurid tale is the product of a prolific writer named Brad Steiger who now enjoys near-cult status.  A Midwest college creative writing professor, Steiger cranked out  fiction and loosely investigative non fiction about freaky phenomenon and unsolved mysteries to support his family.  He used the pseudonym Eric Norman when he wrote The Abominable Snowman in 1969.  Thank you, Mr. Steiger and whoever did the cover art.  What a thrill you gave us! And yes, we are screwed up to this day.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining why I wished the beast would just stay the way he was in Beauty and the Beast, rather than turning into a prince, but that’s another story.

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Ghost House

Architecture is one of my pet obsessions, particularly residential architecture.   Good houses are art, but even dime a dozen tract homes enclose, protect, and create psychological space for their inhabitants.   I imbue houses with personalities and spirits.  I imagine that their walls hold the collective residue of all the sadness and joy of their human occupants.  Their staircases witness people trudging down to schooldays, workdays,  rushing down to holiday mornings, nervously leaving for college and job interviews, being carried down to ambulances and funeral parlors, ascending for passionate nights in bed or and taking  babies up  to new nurseries.  Older homes see generations of these coming and goings.

Nothing is sadder than a demolished house.  All the hopes, dreams, fights, births, deaths — just snuffed and leveled.  As though none of it meant anything at all.  There’s a disturbing tendency to buy an older home and, if its less than 3,000 square feet, to raze it in favor of a much larger new home which then squats, bloated and pretentious, hogging the entire lot.    When did people start needing so much damn space?  I do love contemporary architecture very much, but so much of it is just bad conformist junk , that I mourn the “tiny” structures that proudly held families and dogs and cats and holidays and now aren’t good enough. *  The wrecking ball is so impersonal.

A few weeks ago, I realized that a home had been torn down.  It once belonged to a friend of mine and it was lovely:  a 1920s pastel stucco with archways and wood floors,  a small wedding cake of a house that had a garden in back.  I knew my friend no longer owned the home, but I circled the block in disbelief to make sure I had the right address, unable to comprehend that it had been replaced so quickly with new construction.

I know nothing about the original circumstances or owners of this house.  But in the days I knew it, there were so many fun times in that place, so many parties, boisterous love for one another, and drunken foolishness.  I’ve got photos of myself dancing with abandon on a happy night when two of my friends became a lifetime couple.  This house witnessed the misery of its owner when his partner left, his dogged fight back from the breakup, and his joyful dancing in the street one night that caused his stick-up-the-ass neighbors  to call the police.   And that’s just my own solipsistic, here’s -what- I -know memories.  That’s a mere smudge of the emotional torrents that house saw.   My dad remembers going to lifeguard parties in that house back in the 1950s.  It may have seen some sadness, but I can say with certainty that this residence witnessed and inspired lots of happiness.

A house destroyed is an exercise in mortality.  We see our memories — or if we’re the architect, our work — destroyed and realize that nothing is permanent.  Nobody will now experience the smells, light, sounds, colors, and textures of living in this place.  Especially if you grew up there . . . hey, your reality is now dust, and cosmically you just don’t matter that much.

Artist Rachel Whiteread addressed this Gone With the Wind syndrome with her 1993 work “House.”  Basically, she created a full sized concrete cast of an East London row house that was slated for demolition.  The grey husk sat in London for some time, looking like a sarcophagus, and winning the 1993 Turner Prize, annually presented for a significant British artist under the age of 50.  Whiteread specializes in treating contemporary culture as artifact, producing resin, plaster, and concrete casts of things like rooms, bathtubs,  mattresses, and houses, turning domestic fixtures into archaeological objects.  The casts of these discarded objects are strangely haunting.  They attest to the presence of the people who left the room, just as fossils in the mud are vestiges of things once alive and crawling.

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I wish there was a cast of my friend’s 1920′s house — the front steps, the archway, the patio that supported the people  who were coming in and out for more food and drink, laughing and gossiping, and not thinking about a time when the house wouldn’t be there, or a time when they wouldn’t be there, either.  A cast of my friend’s convertible in the carport would be nice.  In this way, generations are  immortalized and we’re the Grecian Urn, and Pompeii, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Probably I should take a longer view, and London is a good metaphor to use because it’s just so damn old.  It seems like for every parking garage built, somebody uncovers a Shakespearian theater or a Roman road.   There was and is life on all levels, at all times.  Whatever new structure is being built where my friend’s house once stood  (and I’m still not sure — condo, apartment, annex to a nearby new hotel, bigger home?), it will undoubtedly fulfill its basic architectural functions, physical and psychological shelter.  The rest is up to people — and one day, this place, too, will have its own luster of  memory.  And my friend’s ghost house will be there, too, just underneath, with all our voices.

(*Yes, of course I cry at The Brave Little Toaster.)

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Baby Blue

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Breaking Bad Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After spending a week  mourning the end of the television series Breaking Bad, it occurs to me that I have trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality.   What is it about great television that does this to people?   After a few seasons, the characters seem more real than the people in your own life.   And a helluva lot more entertaining.

“Baby Blue” a 1971 song by Badfinger, is a love ballad that makes me weepy under normal circumstances.  Now it will always be linked to the final scene in Breaking Bad, when meth master Walter White takes his last look at the lab equipment he designed to create his special blue methamphetamine.   “Guess I got what I deserved,” the lyrics say, as the camera pans over a dying Walter White, fittingly ending his life in the arms of chemical science, his first and real love.  I keep replaying that scene and that song over and over in my mind, the way you keep touching your tongue to a sore tooth.

Most viewers knew where Walt’s hubris was headed several seasons back.   By the time the finale wrapped, they were almost blasé.  I thought I was, too – I was really prepared for anything to happen – and then they played that damn song.  Wahhhhhhh!   (A poignant aside is that the Badfinger member who wrote that song, Peter Ham, hung himself a few years after he wrote it.)  We watched Walter White go from nerdy science teacher who could barely make a decision, to a drug lord who acted so fast and ruthlessly that it didn’t even look like he had made a decision.

You watch villains become heroes and vice versa, and you discover you love them, or you love to hate them, and their crimes become secondary to their humanity.  I worry about the survivors.  Several times this week, I kept worrying whether Skylar and Walt Jr. would be okay.  I had to remind myself,  “Hello!  It’s a story!”

I am not alone in this.  The end of Breaking Bad left an apocalyptic trail of fan emo-drama in its wake.  “Baby Blue” has been downloaded kazillions of times from iTunes this week.  Just look at the reviews and comment threads.   People are posturing, like,  ‘yeah I knew this was gonna happen two seasons back,’ or they’re violently disagreeing and threatening to kill each other with ricin cigarettes.  Drama gives us a convenient way to invest our feelings in situations and characters that aren’t really ours, without having to risk the emotional expenditure in real life.   My husband threw the only temper tantrum I’ve ever seen him throw, after he thought he messed up the recording of the finale.  (Praise be, the recording was intact, and our household was saved.)

One viewer in a commentary thread said she felt like she’d given birth, just emotionally wrecked after viewing the finale.  That’s catharsis, the sense viewers get from having their emotions worked over.  They watch tragically flawed heroes pursue their ambitions into the ground, sacrificing loved ones in the process – and then they die, and we clap and sob.  We experience a vicarious cleansing because we rode the character’s emotional roller coaster for five acts or five seasons.

Last time I felt this way was when another great television series, The Wire, ended.  The Wire was filmed in Baltimore, a town I started to love when I lived in Maryland.  I returned to Florida a few years before the series started, but somehow the reality of the brief time I spent in Baltimore is completely confused with stuff I saw on The Wire.  The actual tame things I did — going to bookstores and concerts and restaurants and bars and the Enoch Pratt Library  — had nothing to do with crime  drama or drug dealing.   Tell that to my mind, though, and I’m not even a crazy old bat on her deathbed yet.  Go ahead, ask me for a Baltimore memory:  “Well, we were hanging out after the concert, going to Café Hon, and Jimmy McNulty was there, blah blah blah.  Oh, and when I got out of my interview at Enoch Pratt, I went to the parking garage and who do you think was there?  Stringer Bell!”

Yes, I’ve got a real life, last time I checked.  You’d think my real problems this week, a broken hip (my mom-in-law) and an abnormal mammogram (me) would keep me occupied.  Breaking Bad and Baby Blue made me cry.  Somehow this was way easier than crying about the fear and anxiety in my own life right now.   It made me really cognizant of the fine line between what I want to avoid and what I want to feel.

During the final scene between Walter White and his wife, Skylar, he finally admits that he made his meth fortune not for his family’s financial security, as he always claimed, but for himself.   “I did it for me.  I was good at it.  And  –  it made me feel alive.”  That’s why anybody does anything, if they’re lucky enough to find it.  For the rest of us, we make do with television until we discover what makes us feel alive.

 

 

 

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