Man on the Moon

 

Lunar

We were all crazy about rockets.

The best were Estes Rockets, made here in Colorado. My great aunt worked in the factory outside of Florence.

These beauties came with powerful fuel chambers. You’d set off the charge, with a fuse or a battery. And FOOM, a spurt of orange and the rocket would woooosh up up up and at the top of the arc, a plastic parachute would blow open and the rocket would drift down. My family couldn’t afford them, but Dave Sanders across the street had a few. He’d let the rest of us watch at the copy of the Saturn blasted off into the hard, blue sky.

That was only the beginning. I had a full on huge model of the Apollo capsule as part of a GI Joe action figure set. All of the kids — Steve, Dave, Dave Trujillo, Scott, Russ — had helmets and some even had space boots, which really helped sell the effect. 

And I had a model of the Saturn, the capsule, and best, of all, the lunar module itself, a totally sci fi looking object, all insect and slope eyed, brutally styled with those planes and oddly delicate along the legs.

Our imaginations pulsed with astronauts, space ships, distant planets, Star Trek, aliens, men in the moon. We read sci-fi non-stop. (Some of us). We marveled how Jules Verne managed to predict so much about the lunar voyage. We played moon landing or space invasions all across the vacant lots and playgrounds, dirt becoming lunar soil, grass became extra terrestrial monsters who’d suck you down if you let them.

Bill, a fellow obsessive, and I would trade facts about the thrust force of the engines, the weight of the space suits. We had favorites. Mine was Buzz Aldrin — something about his face appealed to me, and he seemed like the smartest one. No one wanted to identify with the one left behind. I felt Aldrin got cheated on being the first one out of the lunar module.

People really don’t give little kids enough credit for what they can learn. 

I pleaded with my mother to take me to see 2001, endlessly, relentlessly. I was too young, and she kept saying so, until, uncharacteristically, worn down, she gave in. The film in its chilly eternities opened up something sublime and terrifying inside of me. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards, thinking of the astronaut whom HAL cut off and sent driving into the the endless void. My mother, tartly, after the third or so night of comforting me, couldn’t help saying she had told me so.

And, of course, television. Walter Cronkite was the only announcer we believed in. Maybe because we sensed the same boy’s enthusiasm in him that we burned with.

I don’t remember the lead up to the landing. The launch, yes, with the Jovian power bursting out of the television as the great rocket blasted off and arched into the sky.

The day of the landing, we all sat glued to the big square hulk of the family black and white. (“Don’t sit too close, honey.”) Each stage, each move was filled with excruciating suspense. We’d learned the whole thing could go horribly wrong. 

The landing especially was almost unbearable. I’d read someplace about a lunar geologist theorizing that the sandy surface of the moon might have no bottom and simply suck the landing module down, like quicksand.

That didn’t happen. Armstrong bounced down, and said his line. We began to breathe again. The flag looked strange and crinkly as they saluted.

I wandered out into the hot evening, barefooted, feeling the nice roughness of the concrete driveway. I went to the end of it, and looked up. Sure enough, the moon was there, and my brain seemed to expand and stretch and knock against its own walls as I tried to realize, and tried to imagine those men on that moon.

We celebrated like sports fans, but it only looked like that. It went deeper. We’d all of us gazed into space, lifted for just a few seconds, anyway, out of the daily.

And, if none of the dreams were realized, if world peace didn’t descend, or cosmic compassion wash over the Earth, if I never made it to flight school, and if we didn’t keep our promises, well, that just makes us rooted to this blue green planet, makes us sad and human.

But we have our moments — not so much in the exploits of those daring astronauts as in the opening of our imaginations to new terrors, new visions, and new lives.

Our Lady

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A friend texted me: Notre Dame is on fire. At first, it didn’t seem important. You imagined a small blaze, easily contained, and brigades of firefighters extinguishing it efficiently.

The images on television told another story.

The footage was mystical and beautiful in a terrible way. It was if Bosch had decided to go into video — the flying buttresses, the lace work sculptures, the towers themselves lit up by tongues of fire, and swathed in cinders and smoke that flared yellow and gray. A vision of hell as Dante-esque as anything he wrote, images so beyond our time that it staggered the imagination. You couldn’t believe it was happening at all, let alone now, in real life and not in a nightmare of, say, François Villon.

At yet, it was live, in the very moment that I saw it on television.

It’s liveness, it’s thundering out in real time made it even more excruciating. Initially, you wondered where the firefighters were. Why doesn’t someone do something?

Then grief scorched, grief rained down, grief made its home. Because if Notre Dame could burn and fall, then what in the world is safe?

Nothing.

Not flesh. We learn that. But not stone, either, not books or relics. You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continued existence of a cathedral that survived revolutions, wars, neglect and even the Nazis. Even the tourists. Because part of the sheer power of Notre Dame is that even when swarmed by murmuring tourists shooting away with their cameras, it still holds magic and sends you someplace transcendent.

I spent many hours there over what has become decades. Nearly all the film photos I took on my first trip to Paris were images of Notre Dame. It seemed to call for at least that sort of homage. I visited its towers, the narrow spiral staircase like a birth canal shooting up and then out above the city. I went to mass, huddled on its pews when I was emulating Rimbaud, took my children there. (My son, then three, was so overwhelmed that when the organist made a crashing chord, he made me take him out of there. Terror and beauty, as Rilke said, are close.)

The sense that this inferno held some message washed over nearly everyone who saw it — maybe a remnant of the time when it was made and locked in the lead and wood  released a deep superstitious dread. God’s judgment is upon us. Or, even worse, Mother Mary finally lost patience. Our Lady is infuriated, and is smiting her own altar with smoke and fire. It’s because of those raping pedophile priests.

Some people saw visions in the flames. They said  martyrs and saints appeared. Others saw Mary. Others saw Satan.

Some sang hymns. You watched them, probably, on cable news which suddenly turned into a branch of L’Osservatore Romano. The Crown of Thorns has been saved!

Then sorrow. As when a loved one goes, we think of all the times we could have visited, but didn’t. How we took her presence, not for granted, exactly, but just part of life. Part of the skyline, ready for another picture, another tour group.

Threatened with its disappearance, she becomes suddenly all the more precious.

I was already in a tenderized state. Worked over. The anniversary of my mother’s death loomed, and the simmering sense of her loss, and of other, lesser griefs, had been lurking in the background. I was about as low as I’d ever been.

The next days, I joined the throngs on the banks of the Seine, looking over at the now roofless cathedral. You’d see the same set of emotions on many faces: worry and concern and then relief. Sort of like visiting a dear one who’s had a major surgery in the hospital.

Like some peasant looking at a Roman ruin, we goggle and stare and wonder, how did men make this? Could we?

And we know that we can’t. We have the technology, maybe, but not the vision. Something that old and beautiful can’t be replaced, even if we could make another beautiful building — which is doubtful.

Restoration and rebuilding were announced almost immediately, and the donations are rolling in.

But maybe we should leave it as it, roofless, ready to fall into ruins. Grass and weeds might take over, graffiti surely will. A sci-fi goth, post punk embodiment of our century.

T. Jefferson Carey, American Hero

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How many people do you know who are pure souls? Who somehow manage to live and create in a way that transcends our shabby normal? Who exhibit bravery and grace when faced with illnesses? And who never, ever give up?

Jeff Carey lived a beautiful life. That kind of life, in the face of challenges no one wants to face. 

I just found out that he died, at 56, from ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease. It’s not how any of us would choose to go. It’s one of those ailments that turns you into a parody of yourself, like strokes. You lose control of your muscles, your face, your language and your body. It’s a disease that seems particularly cruel to inflict on an actor, artist, and playwright, like the irony of Baudelaire being struck silent.

Jeff grew up in east Denver, went to Manual High School and then to major in theatre at New York University. A few years later, he studied playwriting at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He studied with David Mamet, and, back in NYC, was part of a writing group that included Aaron Sorkin.

I didn’t know any of that when I met him. His sister, Ann Carey Sabbah, who loved him and held him in awe, suggested that he’d be a good person to hire for our creative team. I thought so, too. He came in with a portfolio of drawings that managed to be macabre and charming at the same time. He offered a few short scripts, all brilliant and original, and he’d been designed Hallowe’en horror houses, so he seemed like a good candidate for coming up with original ideas. Then the market crashed, and we lost the budget for his position (and for mine a few months later.)

(Which, by the way, is why you should always work for yourself. At least your errors are your own).

We looped around and caught up with each other a few years later, spending several afternoons over at St. Mark’s Café. Those conversations felt autumnal in many ways. Jeff was working the grounds crew at City Park, but he didn’t complain at all about it. He even enjoyed the work. In the meantime, he had a lot of projects percolating. He was writing and drawing every day.

Jeff had a beautiful voice, and his conversation had the rare quality of always being felt, of being called up from the depths. He had a virtuosic command of language, of the shifts and turns of a good chat, moving from funny to profound in a few beats. We talked about Dali, Hemingway, Welles, kid’s cartoons, and the theater in all its aspects. You felt his immediate and overwhelming kindness, always.

What he was too modest to talk about were the productions of his plays in places like Chicago and New York. I had no idea of the scope and range of his work as playwright, ranging as it did over children’s theatre, drama, and comedy — sometimes blending all three. 

Instead, he had the rare grace to chat about topics that interested us both. 

Then, he was between things. He’d find a home with the Creede Repertory Theatre, a fine ensemble in southern Colorado. He played roles, staged his plays and found a base.

He also went through some hard times. But Jeff met every bit of adversity with invention. With the power of his own imagination. 

In a group home with a bunch of people stricken with depression? Write a play and stage it with them. Make it so good that even a legendary theater director like Powell sees it and is blown away.

Got a big ol’ cancerous tumor on one of your precious kidneys? 

Re-imagine it as the woman of your dreams and write another play about it: I, Kidney.

Life in the arts is hard. In the theatre, it seems especially precarious. Jeff took it all in stride, kept working and stayed cheerful.

His sister, quoted by John Moore,  said it very well:

“My brother is a brilliant flame of pure creative energy, dimmed only intermittently by his courageous struggles,” said Sabbah. “The gifts he gave us are boundless and the world was ever so much more interesting through his eyes. As another friend put it, he was the type of person who leaves beauty in his wake.”

I miss him. And this world has been robbed of one more light.

 

Goodbyes

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There’s a nice park two blocks from my house, complete with an artificial lake, benches, playgrounds, a workout circuit and a Frisbee golf course. I take walks there for pleasure and, occasionally, so I don’t feel like a total slug.

At sunset last night, two young families were wrapping up some sort of wholesome picnic by the playground. A toddler-aged girl sang out, “Goodbye!”

The toddler from the other family chirped back, “Goodbye!”

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

A fun game. They laughed in between their goodbyes as the parents packed up the blankets and Tupperware. 

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Only little children could think it’s fun to say goodbye.

 

Flight fight

When I got an upgrade into premiere class on a transatlantic flight, I didn’t realize I’d also be getting a glance into the nature of cattle cars and cancer, but there you go.

Now, on this economy airline, “premier” means wide and roomy seats and a chance to be whisked through lines.

It’s pretty swell.

Unless you’re Louie, an old guy in a wheel chair traveling with his wife. Then nothing seems swell at all. One glance at him, at the fragility in his big frame and at the avocado green and cement grey of his complexion, and you knew he was ill. As in, next to death’s door. 

He had a certain gallantry. Once he arrived at the head of the line, he tipped the woman who’d pushed his wheel chair, thanked her profusely in French, saying she’d done a heroic job. His courtliness and his theatrical baritone suggested a past as an academic, but maybe one with a profitable sideline in consulting.

Because of a hangup, we had to wait on the causeway for an extra 20 minutes. The other premier passengers didn’t seem as if they had to wait around very often. You felt their impatience, the way they felt personally affronted, and you heard complaints. Murmured complaints in low voices, with an appeal to the good humor and understanding of anyone who might overhear their grumbling. 

But we finally boarded. Louie’s wife sat next me in our La-Z-Boy-sized seats. Louie installed himself in the seat in front of her, diagonal to me.

Like the swine I am, I wallowed in the sudden sense of wealth and comfort.

Not long after takeoff, a fight broke out in front of me. Louie, polite old Louie, was bellowing at the steward. His seat didn’t recline. He was being ripped off. So Louie aimed his mobile phone at the steward to photograph the steward, who put his hand over its lens. 

“You are not taking my picture,” the steward said.

As he kept yelling, Louie continued trying to get a clear photo of him. The steward, politely, but with his eyes blazing, continued to push back on the phone with his palm.

“Sir, you must stop,” he said. 

Louie’s wife, who’d been pleading with him to take it easy all along, told him to stop, too.

Louie didn’t stop.

Louie started to wrestle himself out of the seat to stand up.

“If you continue,” the steward said, “we will turn the plane around and you will have to leave.”

Now, all during the struggle, the other passengers were reacting. First, heads craned around, trying to figure out what the fuss was about. When the shouting started, a lot of the ladies gasped or made little cries of fear: oh, oh, ohs. Others inhaled, sharply. Even in the middle of all the excitement, it seemed oddly theatrical, even artificial. Badly directed, I’d say.

Shows of real anger terrify a lot of people. Not me, but that’s likely an accident of temperament and background. I’m used to displays of fury. But nice people — the sort who wear Patagonia down sweaters and Rolexes, above pants woven from high-tech fibers — seem less accustomed to it.

So, as an audience to Louie’s rage, you felt the first wave of shared bewilderment. Then a second wave of intense terror. 

But when the steward threatened to re-route and land the plane, everyone turned against Louie. Stand in line again? Wait for another two hours—maybe four!—to get another take off time? After All We’ve Been Through Already?

On my right, a guy with white hair and unlined skin looked so infuriated that I wondered if he was going to leap out of his chair and hit Louie.

Louie’s wife tried again: “Take my seat, Louie, it reclines.”

“I’m not taking your seat. I want my seat. I want this seat.” 

Two other stewards, both women, arrived to try to defuse the situation. Louie staggered up toward the front of the aircraft, but they blocked his way, then corralled him by the bathroom up front.

HIs wife tried to explain to everyone. She said he was dying of cancer. Some people get depressed, she said, but for Louie, it comes out in anger. She’d clearly had to explain this before. Often.

Word got around. Then Louie stomped back to his seat, still angry, but the crazy, high-octane rage had left him. It looked as if the plane would continue on.

The same white-haired man that had been ready to kill Louie offered his and his wife’s seat to the couple. Louie’s wife thanked him, but no, Louie didn’t want to move.

A few minutes later, a man in a uniform appeared, eyes twinkling, radiating charm, an Ed Harris lookalike. He knelt down by Louie’s seat to hash out the final details. Whatever he said or offered, it worked. 

The rest of us settled into reading books, watching movies, or playing games. Tedium, an underrated blessing, set in. Louie’s wife read her Kindle. 

I thought about how cancer doesn’t just hit the patient alone. I thought about all the other scenes his wife must have witnessed, explained, tried to justify as Louie’s spittle flew. Or about shadowy late nights at home, Louie raging about …  sheets. The way she fluffs his pillow. The way we’re designed to run out of time and die, some of us slowly and painfully. About getting the wrong DNA. Who knows?

And about how quickly a group of people can turn against you. With wrath that’s just barely short of violence. 

And how they can flip to kindness as well. Especially when it’s just a matter of changing seats in premiere class.

Beef

November was slaughter month. You’d kill the beasts before the winter. That way, you wouldn’t have to feed them. Young women, their arms incarnadine, made blood sausage first. Blood spoils the quickest, and no sense in wasting it.

Rembrandt painted this slaughtered ox. While butchered animals had languished in the corners of paintings before him, he was the first to put the carcass front and center, to make it the subject of a painting — to grant it the same attention as St. Mary or the king or the Lord Jesus Himself.

Rembrandt painted this after a particularly rough year, filled with misery, debt and sadness. Speaking of Jesus, some critics see a parallel here with the crucifixion. It’s easy to make out. Only, this is an earthy, lowly crucifixion: just a humble ox laid open. Not Jesus dying for our sins. Mere suffering — if pain can ever merely be pain.

Soutine took the subject a few years later. Soutine, beaten back home in the shtetl for the sin of making images. He was said to be the filthiest man in Paris — he never bathed. While he worked on this canvas, the stench filled the apartment building. He sent his assistant out for fresh blood to keep the meat fresh and shiny over the weeks that he painted it. After a brief period during which Soutine was filthy rich rather than just poor and dirty, the Nazis hunted him. They wanted to pack him off in a cattle car. Soutine died on an operating table, the arena where we learn best how like the slaughtered ox we can be. If you have witnessed an operation with the surgeons stainless steel tools, you know how close the good doctors are to butchers.

The Nazis, devotees of efficiency, didn’t bother with flaying or crucifixions. Suffering as individual and hand made is a classical notion, mythic, now that thermonuclear bombs can annihilate in seconds. In Africa and Cambodia, though, they pursued the old ways until recently.

Perhaps it was realizations like that which inspired Francis Bacon. The wreck of the Church, wretched and retching, a mad ecclesiastical howl below and between hunks of meat, the Lord absent and replaced with a cow’s hollow ribs.

This photograph, from Lettres de Moscou, stands up to the burden of its subject. For once we see the butcher, a craftsman, unemotional, doing his job. We have the implied horror of death, together with the harsh colors and lights of the slaughter house, our modern hell. The crucified animal hangs on its hooks. But the butcher’s confidence gives us a balance. If he’s the executioner, then we’re complicit. We need his skill in the kill. We need it to eat. But is he confident in the face of all that, a stoic? Or just callous? A master, or simply another part of the machine?

Falling slowly

We met in a bar close to his place. He looked a bit older. You check for that in middle age, who’s aging how quickly, who’s grey, who’s dying their hair, the depth of lines around the eyes. Solid evidence, and unwelcome. He’s holding up pretty well, though, takes care of himself.

After an hour or so of Irish whiskeys alternating with Bass ale, he coughed up what’d been bothering him.

“So, my boss called me into his office” (and immediately you think, damn, he got fired,  but no.) “He’s a good guy.” He paused. “And he tells me I fell asleep in a meeting the other day.”

“Hey,” I said. “It happens. Did I tell you about my client’s boss, the guy who had narcolepsy?”

He said it’s happened more than a few times. So it’s evolved into a delicate situation now.

“Well, you told me the job’s boring as shit.”

“Yeah, but I need the money. I need the health insurance, too. You know.”

“Sure.”

“It’s just that the meetings go on and on. Afternoon meetings.”

“Maybe you need to get more sleep.”

“Yeah. I try. Doesn’t work. To much action around the house. Kids, dogs…”

He has to get up around 5:00 am for a long commute, longer than mine because he’s stuck in his house, a place he can’t afford to sell and can’t afford to leave. I picture him, briefly, getting up every weekday before dawn, the quiet and loneliness of his house, the snap of the too-bright light in the bathroom, the harsh transition of that moment when you shift from drowsiness to getting on with the day.

“I’m just going to go back to mainlining coffee. I dunno know why I thought I should give it up, anyway.”

“It was that health kick. Diet Coke’s good, too.”

“Well, y’know, I drink. Of course — mostly red wine — but that’s gotta be worse than coffee. Some health kick.”

“So no big deal. Get a thermos. I saw a guy on the bus who had a whole case of Diet Coke. He takes it on Monday, like his whole weekly supply.”

“Actually, it’s a big deal.”

He leaned into me over the empties.

“Now, no matter what, I’ll be That Guy.” He didn’t have to explain. But he did.

“That Guy. The guy who falls asleep in meetings. No matter what I do, it’ll always be attached to that — that falling asleep. If I score a big deal it’ll be, yeah, he brought in Big Widgets — can you believe it? Must’ve stayed awake during those meetings. Or, nice guy — did you hear how he nodded off during the team session?”

“Yeah, no. Maybe. Who cares?”

It happens. Standards of office behavior are narrow. Quirks, petty rudenesses, a failure of etiquette can haunt you. I swear a receptionist I worked with got fired because she kept trimming her nails at her desk, driving her boss up the wall. Or, the vegan who kept farting. She became, “Aw, Susie,  nice girl…wish she could just…”

And everyone nods right away, knowing what’s coming.

And there’s also that fear. Maybe the biggest one of all in Office World (and in life, too). That you get marked with the spore of a loser. Not that anyone’s a loser, not really, not in the grand cosmic scheme of things. But here, in the cruel specificity of a tribe, a clique, an office, yeah, there are losers.

One day, a perfectly average person–maybe even above average–will muff something, not learn a necessary skill, get stuck, blow an assignment. Then he or she starts getting nervous. They become overly cheery by the coffee machine. They make sure they contribute in meetings, which usually means they spout some nonsense. They compound the situation. They gradually become shunned. Firing is usually the last, least painful stage. If they’re lucky, that stench won’t follow them.

“I gotta get a new job.”

I nodded, and made sure I paid the check.