Endeavor… to dream.

30 04 2011

Thirty years and two weeks ago, a not-quite-11-year-old girl sat in front of her family’s television set, in the basement of a house overlooking a city in Britain’s west. She was transfixed. And in her, a dream was born.

The space shuttle Columbia – an experimental aircraft – had lifted off, orbited the earth and landed safely 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds later. It was the dawn of a new era in space travel. And this eleven-year-old had plans.

Columbia airborne.

She documented those two days in a diary which she still has today. In a child’s loopy handwriting, she proclaimed the technological supremacy of the western world over the Soviet one. It was the height of the Cold War, and countless nuclear warheads were pointed in both directions across the Iron Curtain. The race for space was at full throttle.

And at that moment, she decided to become an astronaut – long before Sally Ride punched through the atmosphere and NASA’s glass ceiling.

Too young to remember Apollo, the girl matured with the modern U.S. space program through the 1980’s, as the shuttle missions grew longer and more complex. She studied every detail of the aircraft’s cockpit, its flight capabilities and its many uses in exploration. She kept a detailed notebook, its columns filled with critical information about every flight. She collected the mission patches, watched as much television news coverage as possible and celebrated the program’s successes. And she promised herself that someday she would go to Cape Canaveral to experience a launch live. Preferably as a participant, and not merely as an observer.

On January 28, 1986, something sad and awful and unthinkable happened. Challenger had exploded just after lift off, killing its seven crewmembers. The girl was a teenager now, and for her it was the first of those moments in history where, years later, you turn to your lover or husband or friend and say: “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard.”

The shuttle stopped flying for a while. And by the time the space program got back on track, she’d had to bury her childhood dream and build a new one. She took her ambition in a very different direction; far from Cape Canaveral, but close to its spirit of discovery.

Lightning struck the shuttle program a second time in February 2003. In the meantime the little girl was all grown up. She was a driven and moderately successful journalist, living a dream replaced.

It was evening as she sat on her bed on the top floor of a five-star hotel, in an island-nation on the other side of the world. She looked up at the television from the story she was writing, expecting to see Columbia’s landing. But the unthinkable had happened again. A surreal and sinking feeling gripped the young woman as the spacecraft – an old, close friend – disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, taking all of her astronauts with her in flames.

So yesterday, a not-quite-41-year-old woman got into her car in South Florida, and started driving north. Cape Canaveral was just 160 miles (260 kilometers) away, and Endeavor was due to launch on its last mission at 3:47 p.m. It would be the next-to-last shuttle flight ever and probably her final chance to experience one live. She was so tantalizingly close, and could not possibly forgive herself if she didn’t try to get there.

It would be a pilgrimage, 30 years in the making; a kind of closure for the dream never realized.

Two hours and 120 miles later came the news no one wanted to hear: Endeavor’s launch was cancelled this day, due to a technical problem.

Endeavor, still here. (April 29, 2011)

In my sudden, crushing disappointment, I felt like the 11-year-old girl I was 30 years ago. I stopped the car and cried for something I wanted so much… but was just not meant to be.

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An impulse and the voice of a good man

26 04 2011
Yesterday morning I experienced a sudden flash of urgent activism. I decided I needed to do a Salvation Army run, get rid of stuff that was cluttering my Florida condo.

When my father died in 2007, we gave most of his clothes to charity. Over the next two years, we renovated his condo, replaced 35-year-old kitchen appliances with modern ones, tore out the 70’s charm and freshened up the décor. The place really needed the makeover. He had talked about doing a general overhaul for years, but the logistics of life always got in the way, and he never did get around to it. He would like the new look, I think.

New kitchen!

Some stuff we left where they were – old photos hanging on the walls, personal ornaments on shelves, knickknacks in drawers and closets. These were things I just felt like I had to deal with at a later time.

There are a lot of drawers here that are still waiting to be dealt with.

So that morning, a bag with my own old clothes was filling up fast. And I found other stuff at the back of a walk-in closet that really needed to go – things that served no real useful purpose anymore. Like an old cordless telephone with an integrated answering machine. Since we no longer have a fixed land line here, I put it in the bag, along with a brand new never-used racketball racket and some dvd’s that no one ever watched.

And then it occurred to me. Before I give the answering machine away, I should probably check just in case there are any personal messages on it. So I plugged it in. It beeped and whirred, like old answering machines used to do and a little red light went on. I pressed a button.

And then a male voice drifted out of the speaker:

“You have reached 954-893-9648. We are unable to come to phone at this time. Please leave your detailed message and we will answer as fast as possible. Thank you very much.”

I didn’t recognize it. The voice came across to me as very foreign, with a heavy German accent. I don’t remember it that way. My father spent almost 50 years in the United States… and that was the kind of accent that other European immigrants had, but not my father. Weird.

I blinked and shook my head, and listened to it a second time. And a third. And then a fourth. It had to be him, who else could it be? It’s the first time I heard that voice in more than three and a half years, as if it was speaking to me from the beyond. It is the only recording of his voice that I have. The only real and tangible shred of my father that I have left. And it sounded so… different, so unusual. So not like I remember him.

The answering machine went back on the shelf, to be dealt with at a later time.

A few baseball caps that were looking a little past their prime also wandered into the bag. One had the words “USS Bonhomme Richard” embroidered across it in gold thread – a gift from a fellow journalist who spent some time embedded on the Navy’s amphibious assault ship years ago (…and all he brought me was this lousy ball cap….).

I had my second epiphany of the morning.

Bonhomme Richard.

Good man Richard.

Richard.

My father’s first name.

That’s it. The ball cap stays, too.

Souvenirs from another age.





Traveling with the kitchen sink (and a broken airplane)

23 04 2011

Domestic air travel in the U.S. is just not what it used to be. Of course, this is not news to many of you, but a recent flight once again highlighted the dangers and inconveniences of such a trip on a leading U.S. airline so I decided to write about it.

So beautiful outside. So dangerous inside.

My trip did not begin under an auspicious star. A faulty electric pump of some sort hindered engine start and grounded our airplane until the mechanics managed to man-handle it into submission. 150 captive and uninitiated passengers hoped the pump in question was not critical to the plane’s airworthiness, since it was obvious that the only way to get to where we were going was to stay seated. There was no replacement airplane anywhere in sight.

The “paperwork”, as the pilots called it, took an hour longer than the actual repair. So much for efficiency in air travel and my plans at my destination. The tear that ripped open the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines 737 over Arizona was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so I guess those responsible for maintenance and safety were a little more jumpy than usual.

All of us on the flight had gotten up before the crack of dawn to catch the plane, and it was infuriating to know that we could have stayed in bed a little longer after all.

Then other highlights of the flight included the standard-fare weirdo fellow passengers and parents with their unruly kids that make you just wish your limited personal space was enclosed in a germ-free, soundproof bubble.

The chips, crackers and snack boxes are for purchase only. And only available to credit-card holders. And they don’t even load lemon for my tea anymore.

But the most frustrating development in modern air travel in the last couple of years is the array of hand luggage that is schlepped into the aircraft at take-off time. Since airlines started charging real money to carry luggage down below, passengers have taken the initiative and are bringing everything with them into the plane. Including, it seems, the kitchen sink.

One unhealthily filled bin dangerously close to my head took two stewardesses and a big strong guy to close. One of four suitcases up there was a couple of square inches larger than the (official) permitted carry-on size, and the bin’s latch would not close, even after I slammed it three times with my fist. A method requiring some finesse – two people pushing on either side, while the third shoved the latch in – forced the desired result.

Passengers just boarding the plane, scoping out places to stow their bags, had to be deterred by a loud chorus of sharp warnings: “DON’T OPEN THAT BIN!!”

After that, the flight itself was uneventful. Arriving at my destination blew away the anger and the fatigue. And I managed to get out of the airplane safe, without major head or neck injury from flying luggage.

Whew. That was work.

Once at the gate, the carry-on luggage scrum begins.

PS. Upon arrival, I discovered that the US AIRline mentioned above wantonly broke the bag that I had checked in.  A series of exasperating conversations with three so-called “Customer Service” representatives yielded a clear and rather customer-unfriendly rebuff.





On writing

18 04 2011

I took off three months from work to get cracking on a memoir. That was my declared goal. Before it started, I created an excel-spreadsheet timetable, like in school, with slots for everything from breakfast to yoga to food shopping to skating to flying and, of course, to writing. According to my timetable, I was due to write for something like 7-10 hours every day.

Unfortunately in my immense wisdom and unbridled ambition, I forgot to schedule slots for basic things like showering, phoning with my husband, reading, vacuuming, paying bills and paying attention to the world around me. There was no time to “veg”. And I discovered (and perfected) the fine art of getting in my own way.

Though I have been a writer of sorts for more than 20 years (journalism counts, doesn’t it?), I’m finding that the act of writing, the physical undertaking, is much more difficult and excruciating than I expected. Or maybe I have just forgotten how to do it. Wit, truth and insight are buried deep. Wherever they are lurking, they seem to like it there.

Lots of words on a page. Easy, huh? (Not really.)

In the past few years, I feel like creativity has bled out of me, replaced by ordinariness and tedium. Like my craft has abandoned me. I can’t put a finger on the time or the place – it was a process… it happened much like a stealth bomber approaches a target, creeping in under radar, with folks on the ground not noticing it’s there till it’s too late.

But perhaps I was never the fountain of ideas and the visionary of originality that I thought I was in the first place. Still, the (perceived) end likely came after I traded in my journalism combat boots for corporate 6-inch heels. Press releases, communications strategies and report launch plans do not inspire me. At least not in the industry in which I am currently caged.

This afternoon’s visit to the local bookstore was a sobering experience. Hundreds of biographies and memoirs, most of which are probably exquisitely written, lined the shelves, each story more compelling in its shock and tragedy than the next. And I only skimmed the back covers of maybe 30 of them.

I once read somewhere that a good story is one where the protagonist changes somehow. That through some event or encounter she matures, grows and becomes a different person. It’s this transformation, this emotional evolution that forms the core of a good story. And in many books I saw today, this transformation happens through one or more of the following: death, disease, drunkenness, denial and destruction.

So that’s another thing I’m wondering as I wade into this ocean of words. Must one have hit rock bottom in some way in order to write a convincing and gripping memoir? Must the road of personal growth always be paved with catastrophic and wretched experiences? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Is this the only formula that works? Or that publishers publish?

There are thousands of websites that offer tips and advice to hopeful writers, and the glut of information makes your head spin. If you read enough of them, you will find absolute contradictory information. One “expert” advises one thing on her blog, and the next advises the opposite on his. This wealth of data leaves the nascent yet increasingly insecure creative non-fiction writer to pick and choose to the best of her knowledge and belief. She’s left guessing what’s important and what’s not. This seems like no way to be successful.

Some famous writer in ages past once said something like: writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. If I was inspired, I would go on google right now to find out who it was. But I’m not. I’m already sweating and overwhelmed by the information I already posess. And with every passing day my discouragement grows. Do I just not have what it takes? What does it take? And why does every writer go through these toxic fits of paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation? And who wants to read about my lousy, insignificant life, anyway?

My writer friends tell me this is all quite normal. But honestly, it is truly crushing. And I’m not sure anymore that I am cut out for the job.





56 hours in bedlam

12 04 2011

As the Amtrak Keystone Service train slid along the tracks northward, I prepared myself for my 2-day New York City visit by trying to recall details from the time I lived there, in 1991-92.

20 years ago? Lord.

Somehow all I came up with were a couple of big blanks across my consciousness. Nothing more than a few fuzzy scenes of alleged ivy league glory. I was a graduate student, and I literally rode to hell and back in an academic year. There is nothing more to tell.

The distant skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan slipped into view…wow, that was quick… it seems like we just left Philadelphia. (It’s this close?) On the New Jersey Turnpike this trip seems to take a lot longer than by train.

We passed towns I know well from those Turnpike exits: Rahway, Elizabeth, Harrison; inching ever closer to that biggest of Apples. Planes approached the south end of Newark airport’s runways, Path trains on neighboring tracks waited for their scheduled departures. Buildings moved closer, emerging from the blue haze, their edges becoming sharper. Unlike my memories.

The biggest apple (core).

Once in the city, it took me less than five blocks to remember why I left New York all those years ago, and only ever come back to visit. If I had to live here again now, the city would eat me whole. For breakfast.

Recently I met a non-native New Yorker who has lived in the city for almost 20 years. She told me that her New York is actually just a small part of it. It’s not the whole megalopolis, from Staten Island to the Bronx, from the Hudson to Long Island Sound, but rather a tiny corner of it in which she lives, works, shops, breathes and exists. She said that the entire city all at once can be overwhelming, even for someone who lives there… every person must carefully and consciously carve out an individual community from the endless opportunities beyond one’s doorstep.

And then a tourist comes and thinks she needs to swallow NYC whole because she is only in the city of cities for a short period of time. That’s impossible, even for the hardiest of souls. I’m glad a nouveau New Yorker confirmed this for me. Some folks think I’m just too sensitive.

My couple of days in New York were full of experiences impossible to replicate anywhere else. It’s that simple. Still, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I didn’t look back when the Amtrak train left Penn station and emerged from the tunnel on the Jersey side. 56 hours in the city was enough for my delicate constitution and I don’t need any more of the smog, dirt or weirdos for the next long while. I’m done with the city and look forward to all the other wonderful places on this great earth that I will have the privilege of seeing. I gladly leave New York to those who can handle the bedlam.

Couldn't have said it better myself.





A town called Philadelphia

7 04 2011

Philadelphia is the most underrated city I know.

Whenever my European friends plan their monumental trips across America, they mention their highlights with visible pride: San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, New York. For some strange reason, the city of brotherly love, home of the pretzel and the greatest ice hockey team to populate the NHL as well as the actual birthplace of the United States of America is hardly ever on the itineraries of allegedly interested European travelers.

The original is here, folks!

Philly is often simply overlooked, left on the right hand side of I-95, the gleaming skyscrapers of Liberty Place off in the distance, as these travelers breeze down the highway from the Big Apple to our nation’s capital. And that is a real shame.

(Irony if ironies: The highway is in New Jersey, the nation’s toxic waste dump.)

There’s a lot to criticize about my hometown, but then again, what city is perfect? I know of none. Philly has a kind of unpretentious air about it, sitting in the shadow of NYCs bright lights and smog off to the north. It’s much smaller than Manhattan, but still has a healthy, diverse cultural scene and is a center for higher education. For those so inclined, there is an active and colorful Gayborhood, a Chinatown (with a big gate), and an Italian Market area in South Philly. And of course, the sports teams, which include the aforementioned Stanley Cup champions, some World Series winners and I think probably the one or the other Superbowl champ, too. (But I’d have to check on that to make sure.)

A friend of mine is a professional photographer here. He grew up in the area, and decided not to leave. He is phenomenally successful and does not know what to do with all the cash he is raking in. An artist of his caliber and business acumen would tend to move on after a while. But he stayed. And his logic was simple: “Either I stay in Philadelphia and I’m a really big fish in this pond, or I go to New York and be a guppy.”

It’s a gritty but friendly town. In the past couple of days I have reacquainted myself with the city I left long ago, and which I didn’t even know really well back then. It’s been a real journey of discovery, of joy. I walked everywhere I felt like going on a whim… by my count, 160 blocks in two and a half days. Aside from the history, which is fascinating, the tree-lined streets of Center City wrapped me in a feeling of comfort and normalcy. The regularness of it all is what’s special.

I never stopped being an unofficial ambassador for Philadelphia, but these days I am more so. Every time some professional European traveler tells me s/he is going for an all-American tour, I try to put the place on her/his maps. Unfortunately, not many of them listen to me. I’m not sure what it would take to get them to pay attention.

Though dwarfed by the gleaming office towers that have grown up around him in the past two decades, William Penn still stands tall atop of City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. It’s good to see him up there. Enough to make me feel whole again.

Master of all he surveys.





Taking South Beach at night, on eight wheels

3 04 2011

OK, folks, “cool” does not begin to describe Friday’s night skate on South Beach. I don’t think there is an adjective in the English language that can adequately portray this athletic carousing on the streets of one of the hippest towns in North America. I am still reeling.

Friday night, Lincoln Road in South Beach, Miami. I knew I was in the right place for the “official” SoBe night skate as wheeled, helmeted, spandex-clad aliens emerged from the gutters to congregate at a street corner downtown. They really stuck out among Miami’s beautiful people, all dressed up, walking their doggie-carriages and preparing for a night out in Party-Central, USA.

A SoBe mama and her canine baby.

The police who would be accompanying us on our tour announced their presence with a blip of sirens, piercing blue and red lights flashing (cops also just want to have fun after all).

As we pushed off at 7pm sharp, I looked around and counted 34 skaters and five cyclists. Escorted by no less than ten police cars.

I asked a fellow skater more familiar with the ride why the cops take two hours out of their (surely very busy) Friday nights fighting crime to escort three dozen weirdos on skates through town – closing streets, blocking traffic and otherwise making themselves generally unpopular, especially among motorists. He said they use the monthly skate events as practice for when someone really significant comes to town, like the President. (Who, incidentally, showed up last month, forcing the cancellation of the SoBe night skate because the cops had to get back to their day jobs.)

And the escort service was quite professional, if I might say so. Skaters were more likely to get hit by a speeding police cruiser, racing up from behind to block off the next intersection, than any other vehicle.

Stay right or perish.

The nice policemen and -women also transported bottles of water for the participants and were kind enough to dispose of the empties afterwards, too.

The 12-mile (20-km) route led through some of the most expensive and attractive neighborhoods in the country. One community of mansions even opened its massive iron gates for us to cruise through. Don’t bother asking the price of a property here, you definitely can’t afford it. (Even if you win this week’s PowerBall jackpot, currently standing at 218 million green ones.)

What the SoBe skate lacks in masses it more than makes up in exclusivity.

Following the sanctioned event, a small group of about 15 skaters gathered for the second, unofficial skate, which, in hindsight, can only be accurately described as a mildly insane, suicidal free-for-all. But of course I didn’t know this before I enthusiastically declared my participation… I was skating here for the first time.

Strength in numbers gave us the confidence and the adrenaline rush we needed to take back the streets on our own (who needs cops?): Careening down tourist-trap Ocean Drive at speed; using parked and moving vehicles for slalom practice; whistling, howling and whooping it up at puzzled passers-by and baffled restaurant patrons. As we passed Gianni Versace’s villa, one skater launched into her rendition of “Strangers in the Night” while three others discussed the harmful health effects of carbon monoxide. Oh, did we just run a red light? Oops.

By the end of the hour-long late skate the group was crooning Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” while evading traffic on Washington Avenue, downtown’s main north-south four-lane thoroughfare.

It appears that this is all normal weekend behavior in South Beach, and it did not elicit a single noise violation, rowdiness citation or traffic ticket. My kind of town.

Lock these people up, they are a danger to my health.

By the end of the evening, I had close to 20 miles (32 kilometers) in my legs. Not quite a marathon, but then again, I never did a marathon in tropical heat and humidity while dodging SUV’s and chatting with a Swiss geophysics professor skating next to me. My ankles were screaming for mercy and the next morning the rest of my body expressed similar sentiments.

So…. when do we get to do this again? Ooooo I can’t wait!