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.

Reading Turgenev

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Three Novellas: Punin and Baburin, The Inn, and The Watch, by Ivan Turgenev and translated by Marion Mainwaring.

For a project I’m working on, I’ve been reading the works of Ivan Turgenev. 

Wedged as he is in between the two monstrous geniuses of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Turgenev doesn’t receive the nearly same attention as Tolstoyevsky. And that’s a damn shame.

Lyrical, penetrating, subtly crafted, Turgenev’s stories work on every end of the spectrum from humor to suspense to melancholy. He draws you into his world, one of serfs, petty nobles, and birches, sure, but also one filled with passionate characters who often stumble through a hard-won wisdom. That new knowledge is often bitter. Yet, the key shifts from comic to tragic and even to the uncanny with seamless ease.

In this collection, the first novella follows an odd couple from the view point of a boy who keeps meeting them as he passes on. Punin is sort of a holy fool, Baburin a committed radical (for the time). The second novella describes an act of fathomless betrayal that ultimately leads to wisdom, ruin, and a surface prosperity for the traitor. The final story traces how a watch, given initially as a present, unwinds a family.

Turgenev’s stories are less about plots than they are about overgrown gardens, the pale skin and dark eyes of a half-peasant, or, simply, longing as much as a simple narrative. Sometimes comic and always profound, always mysterious and beautiful, Turgenev’s work puts him there in the pantheon along with the gargantuans of his generation.

These were all fine novellas. I’d recommend them to anyone who cares about love, literature, or life. If you’re new to Turgenev, though, I’d start with A Sportsman’s Sketchbook, Fathers and Sons, or my favorite, First Love.

 

(painting: A Soldier’s Tale, Illya Repin)

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.