The Right Stuff

08 Feb 2007

My recent NASA joke-post reminded me of something ... This might get a bit weird, and probably won't focus well ... Sorry.

In the fall of 1983, I was a mischievous, naive freshman in the peculiar Midwestern high school I've blogged about ad nauseum. We'd been transitioned through the "junior high" -- two years of conditioning our minds to think of school as a series of hours rather than one continuous day with a single teacher, as had been the case through sixth grade in my experience. You had first hour, second hour, and so on. It's been 20 years, so I've long forgotten how many hours made up the day -- six or seven, I believe (less the ones I cut, of course). We called it cutting class, which was better than other small towns where the practice was known as playing hookie, and not quite as interesting, somehow, as the British term skiving (long i, I believe).

But, this was the big-time. We newbies stuck together in the halls, for the most part, fearing the prospect of falling victim to the dreaded Senior Circle. I'd like to hear from any others whether this existed in their schools or was indigenous to my own locale. The phenomenon referred to small circular formations of male Seniors who'd pull an unsuspecting Freshmen dweeb into their midst and rather violently shove the sorry bastard around until such time as (1) a teacher caught sight and broke things up, (2) the victim had become sufficiently disoriented, anguished, and abused, or (3) the Seniors simply became bored. At which time, someone would shove the guy back out into the hallway and kick his books after him, followed by the humiliation of the freshly beaten kid's gathering of himself and his possessions amid cruel laughter.

It was usually the dirtbag set at my school from whom this sort of behavior could be expected -- angry, lanky bastards in black t-shirts bearing the insignia of any of a dozen tough-sounding heavy metal bands (although more often than not, Ozzy), blue jeans, and a long-sleeved flannel shirt as a sort of jacket. Smokers, the lot, of course. Also mandatory were the black-soled hiking boots, preferred for their ability to leave scuff marks on the floor (well, that and to generally kick ass, I suppose).

Losers, basically. But, in a way they ruled the school because they made their own rules. They were more or less the antithesis of the popular, clean-cut, ambitious set -- even had their own set of hot girls, come to think of it. Where the jocks had their own cadre of mindless (yet, still miraculously above whatever minimum GPA was required for squad membership) cheerleaders drooling all over them, the loser gang had the hottest of the stupid at their beck and call (half of them knocked up, o'course, by their sophomore years, no doubt after chancin' it one night in dad's Trans Am after the Judas Priest concert).

If I ever fell prey to such a group's Senior Circle, I've long repressed it. But, I don't believe I did. By then, I'd developed a pretty good ability to elude such lowlives -- through simple avoidance, mostly. Also through pacifism, occasionally, which still bugs me sometimes. Pacifism by choice, of course, may be regarded as noble. (Fuckin' Ghandi, right?! Fuckin' Rosa Parks, right?!) But pacifism via hopelessness and fear? ... Pathetic.

At 13, I refused to fight a kid once (and, in fairness to myself, the kid was a bully, a brute, and would've certainly beat the living shit out of me). After what seemed an eternity of shoving and taunting, he simply walked away muttering something about how pathetic I was. The worst part of the entire experience was that, deep down (subconsciously), I think I agreed.

I vented that hatred for years, even planning (fantasizing, to be truthful) to kill him a few times. But maybe I was really mad at myself; I still don't know. I'd like to report how much I've grown, matured, wisened up, etc., over the past two, two-and-a-half decades ... But, between you, me, and the fence post, if I could snap my fingers and have a couple of select people drop dead instantly and it never be traced back to me (even though I haven't even seen the bastards in two decades), well, put on a snazzy tune, my friend, 'cause I'm snappin' my fingers. (I've been over this before, actually.)

Anyway, you have to put concepts into context, I believe, in order to understand things. There's a relativity, I think, to most things -- pacifism, as described above. Or, for another example, belief in a god. For example, there's this story I made up one time and then later heard something very similar -- some zen master tale (so, since then -- and this is years ago -- I may have mixed the two tales). But, basically, it presents the situation of asking a child whether she believes in god. The answer is irrelevant; but for our purposes here, let's say she says "yes." Then you ask someone who's meditated on this question for 50 years, and her answer is also "yes."

The point? Ostensible equivalency ... same word, yet completely different answer. That's why language is so fascinating. Two different people can say the exact same words and, depending on the circumstances behind those words (i.e ., the context) the meaning can range from inane to profound.

(I've sort of digressed, haven't I? But this is almost precisely why I enjoy blogging when I'm not writing other things! Don't worry ... I'll pull it all together somehow.)

Look, I joke around about this NASA thing, okay? Few appreciate it much, I guess. Sure, I'll put that astronaut's face on a screenshot from Million Dollar Baby and compare her with Hilary Swank just for something to do. But, I also can't seem to just make jokes about this woman without pointing out my own flaws ( i.e., everything above). Most of us are actually pretty lame compared with this woman:

Lisa Nowak grew up in Rockville, Md., where she was co-valedictorian and member of the track team in high school. After graduating from the Naval Academy, she received a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, flew as a test pilot in the mid-1990s while caring for an infant son, and became a full-fledged astronaut in 1998.

Back to my freshman year ... In 1983, we were treated to a big field trip (perhaps my final one, as such treats were a rarity in high school). Our science teacher took us an hour away into the city to see The Right Stuff, a two-and-a-half hour epic about the early U.S. space program. I was mildly interested in the movie, as I recall -- paid attention to the scenes of early rocket experiments exploding and so forth. But, two-and-a-half hours was probably asking a lot of a 14-year-old. (Extreme digression based on a quick visit to the IMDB: Would I have paid more attention if I'd known then that John Glenn's wife was played by the actress whose daughter would blossom into such extreme Hollywood eye candy? Sorry, I just have kind of a thing for Zooey Deschanel. Don't worry, my wife's cool with it. How can she not be, as I put up with her Johnny Depp pillow case?)

Of course, during this time, Ms. Nowak was probably nearly half-way through her first rocket science degree ... This story will never receive the context it probably deserves. Meanwhile, NASA's going to set out to figure out what went wrong. Can't risk sending "unstable" types on long-term missions to Mars, right? Or is there some value to having, how shall I put this? ... passionate people on board? Are they possibly more creative under pressure? (Sure, killing someone is extreme, but you have to admit, it's creative!) Who knows ... Experts will be assigned to it. "Top Men."

My two cents: "Mental anguish" (what they're calling this) is real. If it can happen to a real-life rocket scientist or to some kid from the Midwest, or to some kids from Columbine for that matter, it can happen to anyone, no matter how well screened by NASA's Human Resources department.

Since this post is not yet quite as long as the length required to ensure that no one reads it, I'll close with a favorite poem of mine called "the lesson of the moth" by Don Marquis. It's in all lower-case, as it was painstakingly typed by archy the cockroach:

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


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