Weightless

When I was eight, I decided to be an astronaut.  I wrote to NASA.  Wasn’t real mail exciting?  They sent me a whole packet of information the way the shuttle worked from toilets to booster rockets.  I devoured every word.

Through my elementary school years, I was a great scientist.  I mixed household substances to create various “formulas,” collected worms, and fantasized about being an astronaut.  To be weightless!  I couldn’t imagine anything better.  I knew I had a slight claustrophobia issue (like tiny caves and being buried alive nightmares), but I didn’t think that would stop me.

My parents took me to the space center several times growing up.  I even got to see a satellite launched.  I didn’t understand what a satellite was.  I just knew that there were no people on the thing we saw zooming up to the sky.  And I remember that the sky was huge, and people were sitting on their cars, like the fourth of July.

My parents bought me a little toy space shuttle, and I flew it around my room and opened and closed the bay doors, regularly inspecting the little black plastic elements inside it, and wondering what they represented.

I was in art class when the Challenger exploded.  We were listening to the launch on the radio in that room with all the brilliant art class smells: tangy tempera paints, wet wood from slopped over water cans, Elmer’s glue, and the metallic, thin scent of watercolors.  Our teacher seemed upset that day.  I didn’t understand why.  I thought surely if the thing had blown up, there must not have been any people on it.  It must have been just a satellite.  I had been told about the teacher being on there, but death before old age was so outside my experience, I couldn’t believe it.

To be an astronaut, I think, is to be completely controlled, completely free.  I still wanted to be an explorer, after I gave up on being an astronaut.  And I still wanted to be free.  I still loved to be in the water, which is closest to being weightless, or in utero, and completely peaceful.

Every time I’ve heard about the end of the shuttle missions, it makes me sad.  The space shuttle meant we went into space all the time, like a normal thing, and only Americans had them.  We were leaders.  What would the next step be after the space shuttle?  Wild, imaginative theories were presented in my NASA publications.

Now it seems there is no next step.  We’ll just hitch a ride with the Russians.  It’s okay for other people to do things, but it feels like we’ve stepped into a holding pattern, instead of stepping ahead.  Without dreams of space travel, the world seems a lot heavier.

Poetry

I remember phrases from childhood travels, not images or events.  Glass-bottomed boat.  Lion Country Safari.  Circus Circus. The musicality of the words meant more to me than the actual experiences.

All I remember about the glass-bottomed boat was my incredulousness.  How could a boat have a glass bottom?  I pictured a little motorboat with a slab of window for a bottom.  Wasn’t that dangerous?  Wouldn’t it break?  Couldn’t ladies shatter it with their high heels?

I don’t remember the actual boat, or the coral reef, down there in the Florida keys.  all I remember is those four syllables, and the fact that my dad went snorkling instead.  Snorkling.  What a word that was!  I couldn’t imagine what he was doing.  Dads did mysterious things, though.  My dad went to an office downtown most days, and I had no idea what he did there.  Snorkle.  Glass-bottomed boat.

We went to several outfits like Lion Country Safari.  We visited one in Florida, and one in Texas.  They strike me as ill-conceived now.  You stay in your car.  “Wild” animals wander around.  Giraffe, deer, maybe even ostrich.  The lions, my father insists, were actually in cages that you drove by.  I remember you could get your photo taken with a lion cub for an extra charge.  My parents disapproved of this on the grounds of both safety and thriftiness.  I did not get a picture. I just kept the name of the place, forever.  Lion Country Safari.

Circus Circus, I’m told, is still there.  I visited Las Vegas when I was three.  My grandmother paid for me to be made up as a clown.  I was only spoiled for my first few years, the ones I have the fewest memory of.  Afterward, I kept the red foam nose, with a sprinkling of glitter.  Sometimes I put it on my nose again.  You needed glue to hold it there, though, and I didn’t have that kind of glue at home.  You actually need souvenirs to remember trips when you are a child.  You actually will forget.  Circus Circus. I either saw, or thought I would see, trapeze artists in the atrium.  I’m not sure which.

We also visited Muir Woods.  We ate Chinese food in San Francisco, which I liked as a city name only second to Cincinnati.  You would think the Hearst Castle would impress more with its architecture than its name, but my world was made of words, not marble.

Where the Child Things Are

I wish Spike Jonze had invited me over to screen his new movie, and I would have said, “But what is this ABOUT?”  I don’t think the film takes a stand for or against conventional narrative structure, which bothered me, but then again, there is a good blanket fort.

Max, in the movie, makes a fort out of blankets, which I hope you know is a super fun thing to do.  Couch cushions make it better.  The best couch has removable seat cushions and back cushions, and a good balance of softness and rigidity.  It would be best if there were pillows for either end that came in a shape useful for building.  Our best building couch was the living room set, two couches with scratchy tan, gray, and cream upholstery.  (In our family, it was certainly a couch and never a sofa, although I don’t know what that’s about.)

Our blanket forts, on the other hand, functioned as Little House on the Prairie encampments, spaceships, and clubhouses of one kind or another.  Never forts.  Obviously a blanket is too easily penetrated.  I’m not sure what Max was thinking on that score.

When Max makes his fort in the movie, he runs out to call for his mother and show it off.  Although my parents are wildly supportive of pretty much every move I make, I remember how disheartening it was when I got old enough to perceive that they were faking interest in my projects.  They wanted to get back to a book or a television show or the bills or a phone call.  Max’s mom is busy like that.  She doesn’t come up to see the fort.

Your parents being grown-up has its plusses and minuses.  If parents are too into what their kids do, I actually feel sorry for the kid.  Kids have their own world, their own thing, and grownups are only required to keep it from going off the tracks into “Lord of the Flies” territory.  Mostly, when I was a child, I felt like a colonial American.  Lots of influence, lots of administrative activity, but my world was still my own to navigate and define.

The sad thing for me was that Max’s friends in his tent were teddy bears.  Adorable glass-eyed teddy bears in a row.  I thought immediately about how when I had a spaceship, I had a copilot.  I never had to look hard or hold auditions or anything.  I started with two little sisters, and later, I got three more siblings.  When I was older and directed movies using my dad’s old camcorder, I was frustrated by casting limitations, but not nearly as frustrated as old Max would have been.  For heaven’s sake– I even had a minimal spread of age and gender to work with.

In one of the reviews of Jonze’s movie, the writer mentioned that Max runs out of his house toward his Wild Things adventure, rather than sitting in his room and letting the vines grow, the walls disappear.  (I’m sorry I can’t find this reference again.)  I guess that is a forgiveable change for cinematic purposes.  It was sad to miss that idea, though– that your escape, as a child, was realizing that your mind was your own, and no parent or teacher or monster could be in there without your okay.

For me, that was part of becoming a reader.  There was always a safe place in my head, if a writer set it up for me.  Escape isn’t out there somewhere– it’s in your head.  (And imprisonment is there, too, as Max gets totally freaked by the idea that the sun will go out.  I heard about that on “3-2-1 Contact” and was equally terrified.)

What I did like about the movie was that it showed how children have their own world.  Max’s mom says she is sorry that some other kids hassled Max, and she says she would have stopped them.   She wouldn’t have.  She couldn’t have.  At the very end, the mom closes her eyes like she’s falling asleep, and Max is alone again.  Deep alone in his thoughts about his adventure, and maybe alone in the forest of his mind.

This is my favorite real review of the film, especially the part about “Kids love danger.”  Danger was indeed oddly lacking:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/10/19/091019crci_cinema_denby

Nothing Happened

I think from the first time I saw “Sesame Street,” I thought: I want to live in the city!  I want to live with a lot of weird people and mismatch architecture and monsters!  Get me out of here! 

I hated that the suburbs were clean and neat.  There was no room for my anger and shame and lust.  The suburbs laughed them off.  In the city, we have bars for anger and shame, and strip clubs and sex shops  for lust. 

I don’t frequent strip clubs or sex shops, but it comforts me to know that they are there.  They are only a mile from my house, showing how unsavory and measly people are.  The sickness of the human condition is there, and it doesn’t apologize.

As a child, I never saw a drunk person.  I never heard profanity.  I only knew one other kid whose parents had divorced.

I have forgotten how when you are driving at night in the suburbs, you can’t tell if everyone else has been kidnapped or dead or evaporated.  Miles and miles of seamless pavement and clean streetlights.  Any other moving car is a coconspirator.  Acres and acres of residential neighborhoods asleep.  Lights out, cars garaged, quiet as church.

My city neighborhood can be quiet, too, but just around the corner is a busy 7-11 and sometimes the quiet is interrupted with raving people at the bus stop or gunshots.

Flannery O’Conner maintained that “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”  And I think that’s true.  I had the feeling that in the suburbs nothing could happen to me, but O’Conner points out the truth.  Things did happen.