Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wicked Oz

1939 was an amazing year in Hollywood. Gone With the Wind was the big Oscar winner, picking up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and five other Bests. It is hard to believe that another film, The Rains Came, landed the prize for Best Visual Effects, beating out not only GWTW, but another classic and visually delicious movie that year, The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz picked up a couple of music Oscars, one for Best Song (‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’) and Best Score, but the movie didn’t do as well at the box office as others, though it was plenty popular in its day. It wasn’t until 1959 when CBS began running the film once annually that L. Frank Baum’s story of friends helping friends hit the cultural jackpot. Many of us baby boomers, in fact, look to those special evening television presentations of Dorothy & Toto’s adventures into the puzzling and wonderful land of Oz as the root of our love for the story. Just yesterday I had lunch with an age-mate, and he declared that after all his years of movie watching, The Wizard of Oz is still his favorite film.

In 1995, Gregory Maguire thickened the Oz plot by releasing his dark prequel of ‘The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,’ Wicked. I can remember the first time I learned of Maguire’s book. It was at the Audubon Camp in Maine on a day we headed out on the water to see what we could find. There were probably twenty of us participants on board, along with a few student assistants, one having parked herself in the stern intently reading Maguire. I was immediately intrigued with the concept of celebrating the Wicked Witch in a book all her own, and though I don’t recall exactly where I picked up my own copy, I’ll just bet I stopped in the bookshop in Camden before I headed home. It has been a favorite story of mine ever since.

Margaret Hamilton played the Wicked Witch in the movie. She was absolutely perfect for the role. Her voice was menacing, the mole on her face was creepy, and her ability to muster flying monkeys and throw fire on command from inside that eerie green body of hers made a believer out of me. I know that when the monkeys came at the Wicked one’s command to collect Dorothy and ‘her little dog, too’ from the Enchanted Forest while brutally destroying her friends in the process, it was potty break time for this nine year-old. The next thing I remember was the rumble in the rocks when the Lion, sounding suddenly brave, eventually pleaded with the Scarecrow and the Tinman to talk him out of a castle rescue attempt.

I have, without question, fallen in love with Elphaba. How can you not love a girl born tragically green? Don’t get me wrong, I love green, but it’s not a color I connect to a healthy person’s skin. Her unnatural green made her an outcast from infancy, rejected even by her parents. She grew up a social anomaly and somehow, miraculously, developed a compassionate personality for the disenfranchised. We can assume her own personal pain tempered her character to speak out for those who had lost their own voices. What’s not to love about that?

I have also, without question, fallen in love with Emily Dickinson, she who decided in her early adulthood that the world was better when viewed at arm’s length. A self-imposed recluse, Emily felt deeply about the natural world and in her letters and poetry reflected often on love, death, birds, flowers, Earth, and sisterhood. The more I think about it, drawing further comparisons between Emily and Elphaba might be an enlightening self analysis. But I’ll leave that for another day.

The Broadway story is different from Maguire’s Wicked, first because it’s a musical, and second for focusing as much or more on Glinda the Good, the show’s other protagonist. The musical offers funny and timely references to both the 1939 movie and the world in which we live.

I find Wicked a great opportunity to revisit Oz with a different pair of glasses -- not so much emerald as older and wiser.

Today’s elder idea: So if you care to find me, look to the western sky! As someone told me lately, everyone deserves the chance to fly!

Elphaba, from ‘Defying Gravity’

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent: Winter meditations

Mardi Gras/Carnival is over. As are Shrove Tuesday pancake meals. Ash Wednesday is here and gone already and Lent is now in full swing.

As a kid reared Roman Catholic and an alum of their parochial elementary and high school system, Lent has been an important part of my upbringing. I hate to admit it, but almost all of those memories are negative. It’s hard to get into Lent, having been fed on images of Christ’s Passion and death, without feeling the guilt of a sinner who is part and parcel of the reason for the whole bloodletting in the first place. I grew up being taught that all Christ’s pain and suffering was my fault. Well, all our faults. We were weak, we sinned, and God had to take it upon Himself to come down and save us through the personal sacrifice of Jesus Himself.

Lent is Christianity’s annual six week period, beginning with Ash Wednesday, to meditate and reflect on our salvation and how indebted we are to the Son of Man for becoming one of us and, in due time, giving himself up to a Roman execution saved, during that time, for the very worst state criminals. How horrible for the God/man.

Lent, kind of like New Years, invites individuals to pick something to work on as a kind of meditative sacrifice. When I was a kid, we were encouraged to give up candy or a favorite television show for the duration. Sometime later, it became more vogue to do something positive for the six week event. Maybe go to daily mass, or pray/meditate on the gospel of Matthew. I’ve tried both, and like New Years resolutions, I’ve never done better than a mediocre job of living up to my own expectations.

Part of my problem is I truly hate violence. I drop in on Cindy’s television watching most evenings. Usually it’s Law & Order, NCIS, or CSI. Inevitably I walk through the living room when some corpse is being probed for evidence or some new cadaver is rolled out of the morgue locker in all its gruesome detail. Give me NASA tv, a Red’s baseball game, or Keith or Rachel on MSNBC any evening.

And that’s part of what bugs me about Lent. It ends in tears and tragedy every year. The God guy is going to be forsaken by his sinful friends and turned over unjustly to pay the ultimate price in a brutal and bloody execution. Dude, I try to avoid concentrating on such violence in my life. It’s very hard for me.

Maybe it is for everybody. Maybe that’s the point. All I know is it hurts me to the point where I just don’t want to participate. I could have gone to church for ashes yesterday, the tried-and-true reminder of our own death with the prayer offered over each believer, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return‘ as a cross of ashes is dusted on everybody’s forehead. At age 60 I know death pretty well. I just don’t want to dwell on it for six weeks. Every year.

I have signed up this year for a daily meditation provided by the national Episcopal church. It has greeted me on my email browser both days of Lent so far. They’re short and seem pretty thoughtful. Today’s entry focuses on the important work of Martin Luther’s reform, but ends with the reminder that ‘darkness is everywhere‘ in our world. I know. I just hate to obsess on it. I see humanity’s inhumanity to humanity every day just about every where I look in the news.

And it hurts my heart. I hate to face the possibility of being drawn into a maelstrom of meditation on death. Again. Still, it is winter and when Lent’s over it will be spring. We’ll be reborn again with life re-rising one more time from the Earth Mother. I’ll do some meditating -- and do my best to hang in. Both Spring and Easter offer one one heck of a promise.

Today’s elder idea: An original poem from last summer’s stay at the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado:

Nada 2

I recognize the need of suffering

in the world to balance

the joy.


the brutality of the corpus nailed

to the cross repels me

from using the chapel for meditation.

I prefer contemplating the demise

of bugs in the bills of green-tailed towhees and

mountain bluebirds when it comes to

reflections on dark and light,

yin and yang, sacrifice and salvation,

consumption and release.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dad's birthday+

This day would have been my dad’s 90th birthday. He’s been gone for a while now. And today I find a new reason to celebrate February 8: My wife and I witnessed our first live space shuttle launch -- the pyrotechnics of STS-130 Endeavour -- in the dark wee hours of early this morning. As you can see from the attending photo, it was an enlightening experience.

I truly love to watch space shuttle launches. Up to now those I’ve witnessed were first televised on the news networks, but now broadcast in all the minute detail on NASA television. Oh, such a time it is. Live coverage starts hours before liftoff with footage of astronauts donning pumpkin flight suits and then watching the breath of hydrogen and oxygen boil off of the recently filled external fuel tank.

I understand now that T minus 3 hours, T minus 20 minutes, and T minus 9 minutes are normal holds built into the countdown when final tasks are caught up and a phalanx of engineers and managers give final approval to set fire to rockets that launch real human beings 200+ miles above the Earth’s surface. It’s a ride unequaled in human experience.

As it turns out, the launch of STS-130 was “the last night space shuttle launch in the history of the world,” according to one proud engineer who was in the firing room when the candles were lit. He had tried to get us VIP passes to get us up-close and personal for the launch, but he just couldn’t. We didn’t get our ask in until late.

Still, when Steve the Engineer finally phoned today -- after his business of safely delivering colleagues to space was completed -- he was prepared to get us a special tour at the Kennedy Space Center later this week. As great as that sounded, Cindy Lou and I had just minutes prior cancelled our last night here at the Hampton Inn so we could finally start our way back to snowbound Ohio. I thanked Steve much for his consideration and hoped he could work some magic for us this summer when we hope to return with grandkids for the penultimate space shuttle launch on July 29. He said he’d try. Getting behind-the-scenes for a new experience will be mighty special with grandkids.

I don’t know that my dad cared a lot for the space shuttle. I know he was mighty proud to have served in the Army Air Corps in The Good War where he learned to cook for many. I know he displayed the colors on our homestead on national holidays when I was a kid. I know he cried every time he heard taps. I have this feeling that he would have really loved to have been standing with me watching one of the most amazing things the United States of America has ever wrought soar into space to join colleagues already at work in low-Earth orbit. It is good that I can link the two forever on February 8. Good, indeed.

Today’s elder idea: Old Guys Rule: High mileage / Low maintenance

the message on my new hat purchased at the Cocoa Beach Surf Company

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Endeavour and Arthur

It’s about a quarter after 10 pm on a Saturday night as we sit here in our motel room awaiting departure time to drive up A1A here in Cocoa Beach to our predetermined perch to watch Endeavour blast off at 4:39 Sunday morning. NASA tv is keeping us mostly mute company with a great camera-eye’s view of the shuttle stack during the early stages of the countdown. Shuttle Launch Control has just announced the beginning of the two hour, thirty minute hold at T-3:00. It’s time for them to send a couple of crews up to the pad for some realtime eyeball checks to see that all looks good.

The STS-130 crew, I heard this afternoon, will be working the graveyard shift on their 13 day mission. They were sleeping this afternoon in preparation for the early morning launch and their first workday in space. I think they only have about a ten minute window to launch. The International Space Station will pass 200 miles overhead, then Endeavour will start the chase with a flash that I hear fills the sky during nighttime launches. Such a sight it must be. I feel very lucky to be present for the last nighttime launch of a space shuttle.

Cindy and I got a suggestion of where we might get a great look at the launch from a friend back home in Dayton with Air Force and NASA connections. We imagine we’ll be joined by lots of people, so we’re going to head up the road just after midnight to claim a vantage point. We’ll hang out in the car for whatever time it takes to get us to 4:39 AM EST. We bought a camcorder just for this occasion, and I’ll have my digital SLR at the ready. I heard the NASA director say today to foreign journalists here to cover the launch for the first time to be prepared to just stand and watch. He said he weeps at every shuttle launch, sensing the power and knowing friends riding the rocket. I do want to just watch, but I realize this is a moment to record for posterity. I’ll be recording as much as I can. I suspect there will be a tear or two for me, too.

STS-130 will be peopled with six astronauts, all going along for the ride and the work involved. None will be staying at the ISS. Their primary cargo is the Tranquility node and the 7-windowed cupola, both built by the European Space Agency. This afternoon I rode up the motel elevator with a guy who took a look at my 2003 Inventing Flight tee shirt that invited a comment. I gushed on about that summer in Dayton, then he told me he was with the European press -- and will watch the launch from the media room at Kennedy Space Center. His smile was from ear to ear.

And just to heighten this event for me, I am savoring a re-reading of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two. I first read it hungrily when it came out in 1982. I reckoned it was high time to read it again. After all, it is 2010 -- and I don’t think I’ll ever get any closer to beloved space than this event. It’s been fun. I’ve loved Clarke’s books since I was a kid.

I suppose when I set the video of the launch to music, I could use Also Sprach Zarathustra, or maybe The Blue Danube, both made famous for space in Stanley Kubrick’s blockbuster film of Clarke’s book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh, how transformative that film was for me in 1968, my senior year in high school. It’s probably because of that story -- and the flight successes of Ohio homeboys John Glenn and Neil Armstrong -- that I became smitten with space and space travel way back then. It’s been a long road from there to here. I’m one lucky guy.

Today’s elder idea: ‘Dave -- my mind is going. I can feel it. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it...’

HAL 9000 computer talking to Discovery astronaut David Bowman

from 2001: A Space Odyssey