Radiant Sun – So Long, 2016

This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:

It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.

I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.

Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.

At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.

My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,

still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.

I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.

One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”

My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.

I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.

‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.

‘Keep what?’

‘The space monkeys.’

I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!

Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!

My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.

The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.

Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.

So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.

So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.

Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. Via: NASA

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon.
Via: NASA

We were recently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where we viewed an exhibition called You Say You Want A Revolution. It was a compilation of materials and installations that illustrated the upheaval in popular culture and music from 1966-70, and asked whether they impacted the way we live today and think about the future.

I was young but I remember that era well. There was a fire and passion to break down the stagnant structures of the past, to imagine a new future that respected people of all stripes and persuasions.

From the wall of the museum exhibition: "The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century." By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

From the wall of the museum exhibition: “The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century.”
By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

Some of the most important images of that era were taken from space, from missions to the moon. The space program was an immense achievement – but what happened with the astronauts looked over their shoulders was just as relevant. What they saw behind them, for the first time in human history, was our planet, a jewel floating in space.

I remember being impressed and inspired by these images as a young person. We were worried about ideologically-driven nuclear war, about over-population. My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go live in off-planet space colonies if it would help save the Earth. I was thirteen, and filled with sense of solidarity with both the planet, and with my fellow humans.

The painting of the interior of a "Model III" cylindrical Space Colony. Artist: Don Davis

The painting of the interior of a “Model III” cylindrical Space Colony.
Artist: Don Davis

I had hoped to be writing this post with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, and instead find myself writing it to discourage any slide into despair. It seems in our fear and insecurity at where our institutions have taken us, we are drawing lines between each other, ever deeper in the sand and in minds, when we can and must reach across them if we are to keep this planet a place where we can thrive.

I offer this as a reminder that we are all in this together, all of us, every living creature. More than ever, globalization shows us how small this place is that we call home. Too small to be distracted by hate, by squabbling over borders that are, in the truest sense, imaginary creations on a little planet. We quite literally all breathe the same air, drink the same water, tread the same soil.

The science-fiction dreams of green, forested space colonies are unattainable imitations of what we have right here. When you look at the image below, you won’t see any borders, and like it or not, it’s what we all share.

Let’s look forward at the big picture, insist on working together rather than against each other, to take whatever size steps we can, to take care of one another and our home. Let’s listen through the yelling and find common ground.
These days, finding common ground with those on the other end of a belief spectrum feels revolutionary — yet whether we acknowledge it or not, we all share more than divides us. Let’s get to work.

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972. Via: NASA/Wikipedia

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.
Via: NASA/Wikipedia

A Little Perspective

It’s been a rough start to 2015, so I thought I’d step back and look at a bigger picture.

NASA released an image of a section of one of our nearest neighbors, galactically-speaking: the Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31.

The image itself contains 1.5 billion pixels and represents the largest image ever released by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The section of the galaxy shown contains over 100 million stars and would take 40,000 years to traverse at the speed of light.

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.  Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.  Source: NASA

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.
Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.
Source: NASA

Something to remind me on the one hand, that we are part of something far more vast than the human squabbles that take place on the surface of our planet, and on the other hand, that among all these countless celestial bodies, this little planet is the only one we’ve got.

If you’ve got the time, set your screen to full-view and spend a few short minutes on this lovely fly-through video, put together by YouTube user daveachuck.

Space Salad

Most science fiction notions of humans living in space, at least the ones that aren’t all white-walled and minimalistic, involve at least one image something like this:

Toroid Colony
Illustration: Don Davis via Discover Magazine

NASA announced that later this year, the International Space Station will, for the first time, practice space farming. Six heads of romaine lettuce, to be exact, grown in Kevlar pillow packs filled with something like kitty litter.

From the ISS web site: “The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation.”

So, something a little more modest. Like this:

Lettuce in Grow Bags Image: GardenGirlCT

Lettuce in Grow Bags
Image: GardenGirlCT

Success with lettuce (or lessons learned) could even lead to radishes, snap peas, and a strain of tomato bred for modest space (!) requirements.

I especially like that one of the benefits defined for space gardening, beyond the more sterile standards of ‘nutrition’ and ‘safe food source’ is the more ephemeral potential for ‘relaxation‘. Assuming, of course, that the astronauts doing the tending actually like to garden.

Even though the gardening will be done in a tiny enclosed living area with limited water and soil, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t yet count as urban gardening.

Space Whisky

Vanishing Spirits Photo: Ernie Button

Vanishing Spirits
Photo: Ernie Button

File under ‘new frontiers in the Scotch whisky market’: Ardbeg distillery partnered with commercial space research company NanoRocks to study the effects of near-zero gravity on the maturation process of whisky. Vials of organic chemical compounds from the Ardbeg distillery, along with samples of different kinds of oak wood, were sent into space in late 2011 for a two-year trip. The whisky-makers hope to get a fresh perspective on how terpenes, large molecules that are primary constituents in many essential oils and building blocks of some flavor compounds, interact with charred wood in space.

Ardberg Galileo

Ardbeg Galileo

In the interim, Ardbeg has released the 12-year-old Galileo bottling to celebrate this experiment. Whatever the results of the space trip on whisky production, Ardbeg Galileo has done pretty well on Earth – it was the winner of World’s Best Single Malt at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards.

All of this is a good excuse to show these super-spacey photographs by artist Ernie Button, who lets different kinds of single malt Scotch whisky dry in the bottom of a glass, illuminates the residues with light, and takes a picture. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Islay Whisky Festival (24 May – 1 June), you can see an exhibition of Button’s work.

More:

Ardbeg

Gallery of Ernie Button’s work

Vanishing Spirits Photo: Ernie Button

Vanishing Spirits
Photo: Ernie Button