Friday, November 20, 2009

15 Things I learned when I spent a day with Buzz Aldrin.

1. Everybody wants a piece of Buzz Aldrin. People want to touch him, shake his hand, have their picture taken shaking his hand, get their picture taken clapping him on the shoulder, and generally make physical contact with him as much as they can—and get photographic evidence that they have done so, if at all possible.

2. Everybody wants to tell Buzz Aldrin where they were and what they were doing while he was walking on the moon. These stories are almost uniformly uninteresting, as stories about watching TV tend to be.

3. Buzz Aldrin nods and smiles politely at these stories. Telling one of these stories, a person will start to realize how idiotic he sounds, telling Buzz about where he was watching TV one day in July of 1969. Buzz Aldrin is so patient with these stories it’s easy to forget that he has been listening to them FOR FORTY YEARS.

4. It's not as common as you might think that someone actually challenges Buzz Aldrin in person about whether the moon landings were faked. I saw Buzz Aldrin meet about 350 people and witnessed zero confrontations. (I know— I was disappointed too.)

5. Every time a suspected lunar hoax conspiricist approaches Buzz (and by "suspected lunar hoax conspiricist" I mean a white man, 25-45 years old, with poor hygiene and/or fashion sense), everyone becomes quiet and listens carefully until the man starts to tell Buzz where he was and what he was doing while Buzz walked on the moon.

6. The things people ask Buzz Aldrin to sign are many and varied. Old yellowing newspapers from 1969 with Buzz’s picture, various Apollo-era souvenir books, a moon-shaped nightlight, a couple of garments, zero body parts. (It’s just not that kind of party, I guess.)

7. When a suspected lunar hoax conspiricist approaches Buzz Aldrin holding nothing in his hands but a hunting jacket, draped entirely over his arm and covering his hand and any possible firearms he may be carrying, everyone will freeze watchfully but no one will throw herself in front of Buzz Aldrin or attempt tackle the man.

8. I was thinking I really should throw myself in front of Buzz Aldrin if the suspected lunar hoax conspiricist got any closer. I mean, how cool would it be to save Buzz Aldrin’s life? But I didn’t, and neither did anyone else, and the guy would have had a clear shot at him. As it turned out, the guy wanted Buzz to sign his hunting jacket because he didn’t have a copy of the book. Buzz declined to do so.

9. Some children are genuinely excited to meet Buzz Aldrin, and this is quite dear to observe. But some children don't really understand why they should be excited to meet Buzz Aldrin, and become shy and confused, and when that happens, there is a tendency to for people to try to get the child excited by saying to him or her, "You know Buzz Lightyear? Well, this is the REAL Buzz!"

10. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but it turns out that I am one of these people. I heard myself say “This is the real Buzz!” to children several times.

11. Buzz Aldrin's Twitter name is "The Real Buzz."

12. Buzz Aldrin will be happy to sign a Buzz Lightyear action figure for you. He even carries a permanent marker that writes nicely on the plastic.

13. After I introduced Buzz Aldrin at his reading, as I walked off the stage, he said to the crowd, “Now that’s a special lady.” This is a moment that I expect to see flash before my eyes in any future near-death experience.

14. Buzz Aldrin's business card identifies him as “astronaut” and “rocket scientist.” I am thinking of having those titles put on my business card too, even though in my case they would be lies.

15. When Buzz Aldrin recommends a book (as he did mine at the beginning of his talk) a number of people will dutifully buy it. God bless you, Buzz Aldrin.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Watch this space! (get it?)

I met Buzz Aldrin. More to come.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Pushy Literary Theorist

I was honored and quite starstruck to do this interview with Mimi Smartypants recently. If you don't know who Mimi Smartypants is, leave this site and go to hers: I'll see you back here in a week or so.

Back? Good. So you see why I like her so much. I was really curious to interview her because I have a lot of Questions and Ideas about what it means to be a writer in the Age of the Internet... As a writer of a Book, I'm constantly being told that books are not long for this world and that I am basically a throwback to a bygone era and may as well be churning butter by hand or setting cold type. So I was curious to talk about all this with a woman who is, to my mind, one of the very best writers working primarily on the internets.

But I failed to consider, in the course of preparing for and conducting this interview, that no artist (and I don't think it's a stretch to call Mimi Smartypants an artist) is really capable of analyzing her own work and her own place in the history of her genre. Of course, right? I mean, any artist who even likes trying to talk about such things is probably so wanky that you would never want to read their work. As Mimi puts it: "I do not have a lot of patience for people who have a grand manifesto about their creative activity." That.

Anyway, I hope I didn't permanently alienate myself from her good graces by pushing her on, for example, what sort of paper an undergraduate might be forced to write about her work in 2509.

I did, however, confirm that no-delete Thursday is real. It's real! Which blows my gourd. You don't want to see my no-delete anything, believe me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I read a book.

On an earlier attempt at a blog, I started out recording the books that I read and my thoughts about them. Not formal reviews, just my off-the-cuff impressions. It was fun to record what I read this way, and to hear others' comments on books. But it wasn't long before this happened: I gave a book a meh review. I was disappointed because I really idolize the author and the whole book just didn't hold up to the genius I expected. Cut to me, several weeks later, shaking this author's hand at a bookstore reading, calculating how quickly I could get to a computer to erase (or edit) that review before The Author could see it. That was not a good feeling. So I haven't been doing the same on this blog.

But it occurs to me that I don't have to write reviews—I can just record what I read. All the better, since I seem to be unable to keep my Goodreads or Librarything updated... according to those sites, I haven't read a thing since my son was born but Goodnight Moon. Not that that book isn't a classic.

So in the spirit of this, I recently read:

Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
Jim Keogh, Solving the Year 2000 Problem [guess which of these are research for my next book]
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina [yes, again. What?]
Dave Cullen, Columbine

(I wanted to tell you how much I liked some for these because I forgot for a second that I'm not reviewing them. That will take some getting used to.)

Friday, July 03, 2009

I knitted something.

It's one of the great ironies of academic life: when we get lots of free time (I've been on leave since January) we actually feel that we have LESS time for non-work activities like updating blogs, reading for pleasure, home maintenance, and personal hygiene. This is because when you have unstructured time in which you are supposed to be doing something huge and insurmountable (in my case, writing my second novel) it feels like it's never acceptable to take the time to do anything else. After all, you're on leave! You should be producing! How many pages have you written today! Etc.

Anyway, that's sort of an excuse for how little I've been updating this blog lately, even with all the NASA news that's been going on. I hope to update you with my fascinating thoughts about recent goings-on when I get the chance (probably, when I get back to a normal teaching schedule).

For the time being, please enjoy one non-work-related thing I've managed to get done: I knitted matching sweaters for a colleague's newborn twins. Knitting might seem as though it should fall into the above non-work category, but knitting is what I do when I watch Netflix movies with my Associate in the evening, and so knitting projects have been continuing apace. Coming next: a hand-knitted reusable Swiffer cover. Oh, no, I'm not kidding.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009


This is a great site. Their "you might also enjoy" algorithm kicked up books about space I had not previously been aware of and am now totally going to read.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Death of the Book!!! (dun dun dun)

You know what I'm talking about, right? Every other item I see in a magazine or on the Internets, especially among my Facebook buddies, is about how publishing and bookstores as we know them are ending, in a flaming mushroom cloud, right now. The publishers are completely freaking about how bad business is and they are preparing for things to get even worse. The main way they are preparing, it seems, is by publishing fewer and fewer of the kinds of books my friends and I care about. The remaining entrenched independent bookstores to survive the nineties are now starting to go belly-up one by one. Borders is trying to sell out, but no one wants to buy them, including Barnes & Noble. Often that Reading at Risk study by the NEA is cited at some point.

Scholars, there's nothing I can say to argue with any of this, as these are facts. And as a professional consumer AND producer of literature, I'm not in a place to take any of it lightly. If publishing and bookselling and, lordhelpus, libraries were to stop being what they are, that would be really bad for me and the people and things that I value. I'm working on another book right now, and I hope that at such time as I might finish it, some publisher will be willing to spend money to make paper copies of it, and that some bookstore might spend money to stock some of those copies on shelves-- both of which seem like sketchier propositions by the day.

But here's what bothers me about the way we tend to talk about this: I generally hear a tone that I'd describe as decrying— you know, decrying the plight of literature. But my question is: whom are we decrying?

We can't possibly blame the bookstores themselves for going under—if any of their decisions have led to their desctruction, it's their tenacity in continuing to devote floorspace to poetry instead of High School Musical DVDs. We might like to blame publishers, but the same argument sort of holds, right? Even if they have been reacting to declining sales by throwing more money at less literary books, it's in an effort to continue publishing books, which after all, is what we want.

The only people left to blame are the people who don't buy books, and this is what makes me squeamish. It makes me feel like we (you know, we consumers and producers of literature) are huddled in a little latte-sipping mob, sniping at the Philistines who should be spending their money on $24.95 literary hardcovers instead of Xboxes. And that's just troubling to me on a number of levels. One being that every new technology has pissed off the devotees of the technology that came before it, the purists (or Luddites, take your pick) who champion (cling to) the noble (outdated) medium they feel gives their art meaning. The first example to spring to mind is the people who freaked over Gutenberg's moveable type because it made irrelevant the skills of calligraphers and illiminators(?) who had theretofore cornered the market on bookmaking. And I get that, the clinging to the beautiful manuscripts, but I get even more the unstoppable force and undeniable democratic appeal of moveable type, which made knowledge available to more people, more cheaply, thereby changing the world forever. For the good, I think we can all agree.

I guess what I'm saying is that if people aren't buying books, it's not because they're stupid, it's because books, as a technology, are over. (One could make an argument that if you agree to live in a capitalist society, you must accept all of the results of capitalism, but I won't argue that.) I do believe that The People, in making these changes, are never stupid, scholars, even if beautiful things might get trampled in the process. I know, I know, if I think books are over why have I chosen to work in that medium and devoted my day job life to helping the young to read and write in that medium? I guess I hope that the art form itself is not really over, but there's a major transition, an upheaval, going on in the way people want to experience narratives. It's this transition that seems so badly glossed over and misunderstood by the sort of facile "oh god soon books will be completely replaced by [fill in ridiculous philistine invention here]." I tend not to be on the side of arguments that take that tone, a tone that, frankly, has not a small whiff of classism mixed in.

Because we, even we who do the decrying, watch TV and watch movies that come to us on DVDs in little red envelopes and play Wii and read the Times online and talk on the phone and type our musings into blogs rather than manuscripts intended to become paper books. WE do. We spend more time doing these things than we do reading words on paper (or we would if you don't count our day jobs). So I feel like we should take our noses out of the air and think about how to find a place for literature as we know it in and among a wash of newer media, all of which turn out some art and some crap, without blaming people for failing to uphold our preferred dying medium. WE should take the responsibility for helping the narratives we value (the ones based on words) survive somewhere in this ecosystem, rather than just copping Sorrowful (and Superior).

You know what I mean? No, you think I'm way off. I can tell.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Can you believe that another January 28 is upon us?

This year I am thinking about a new era for the US government— especially with respect to one of my favorite government agencies, NASA. Our friends in the spaceflight industry have been spooked by the new President's lack of a clear position on funding for NASA, and Obama has freaked everyone out a couple of times by, for example, suggesting that the moon-to-Mars project could be pushed back five years in order to free up money for troubled public schools and asking how much would be saved by canceling the Ares 1 project altogether. The verbs are important here: he is not "announcing" or "demanding," but "suggesting" and "asking." I think Obama is testing the waters, trying to figure out whether we the people who elected him would like to see expensive space projects canceled in a show of frugality, or whether we want to see money spent that will create jobs and build pride in the nation. And this "pride in the nation" thing is not an abstract concept I'm throwing about— the United States has achieved more in spaceflight than any other country, and with VERY few resources—we are taking about half of one percent of the federal budget. And don't let the false either-or about spaceflight vs. school funding scare you, either. For instance, we could SPEND MONEY ON BOTH. We have the money to spend.

Last week, everyone I knew was fired up by an inauguration in a way that I have never seen before in my life. Even those who are completely cynical about politics and the federal government are peeking out of their irony caves to sniff the air, and scholars, they are picking up the scent of hope. Be the Change? Yes We Can? These should sound cheesy, but they don't, because they are delivered with sincerity and because those messages are badly needed right now. President Obama: now is a great time to show the world that our government respects SCIENCE once again. Now is a great time to spend money that will create and maintain jobs in many fields in many states, and now is definitely a great time to give us all something uniquely American to be proud of.

Most of the Challenger astronauts stated at one time or another that, should they die in an accident on a flight, they would want spaceflight to go on. So today, with this in mind, I'm going to use the swanky new contact tools on to share my views on this.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Columbia Accident Report

This is more interesting than I thought it would be.

The language has a strange combination of bluntness and evasiveness that readers of the Kerwin Report on Challenger will find eerily familiar. Readers of The Time It Takes to Fall will remember that Dr. Kerwin examined the wreckage of Challenger's crew cabin and the crews' remains in order to speculate on the possible causes of the crew's deaths. Before this report was released, everyone assumed that the astronauts had died instantly at the moment of the explosion, but the Kerwin report exposed the fact that they (probably) survived the explosion and (probably) were still alive when the crew cabin impacted the surface of the ocean. The suggestion that the crew all blacked out instantly from depressurization is, while comforting, far from certain—the report includes this disturbing passage (actually a bullet point, because NASA loves the bullet points):
  • The crew seats and restraint harnesses showed patterns of failure which demonstrates that all the seats were in place and occupied at water impact with all harnesses locked. This would likely be the case had rapid loss of consciousness occurred, but it does not constitute proof.
The new Columbia report reflects the same fascination with consciousness or lack thereof; once again we are told that the crew blacked out when the cabin depressurized, possibly sparing them the suffering of being thrown about in the crew cabin, exposed to heat or cold, and knowing what was to occur. Students of Challenger can be forgiven for being skeptical about this comforting possibility. What went wrong with Columbia probably developed gradually (re-entry is a very slow process) and it's hard to imagine that the crew somehow escaped understanding what was going wrong.

In DailyTech, which you might have missed if you aren't an enormous geek, a debate emerged in the Comments area over the funds and effort expended on this study. Many readers felt that there's no point in pinpointing exactly what went wrong and why. These readers especially questioned the Report's deep interest in the crew's pressure suits and restraint harnesses, both of which seemed to have failed badly. Nothing to be gained by this further information, these readers say, and some go a step further to speculate that this report is timed to make NASA look bad just as Obama takes office in order to justify his slashing of their budget. (Question to DailyTech conspiracy theorists: wait, why is NASA releasing this report to justify their own budget slashing? Please advise.)

To me, the reason the expense and effort are justified seems obvious. But I'll let N. Wayne Hale, Jr., a former head of the shuttle program, answer for me. He said in the Times:

“I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home, to read this report and apply these lessons which have been paid for so dearly.”

THAT'S why.