Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day

I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s a small town, a suburb of Toledo, and when I was a kid in the 1950’s and ’60’s, it fit all of the images that small towns in the Midwest have: tree-shaded streets, neat homes, lots of churches, and a main street — Louisiana Avenue — with little shops like the drug store with the fountain, the dime store, the barber shop, the hardware store, the bakery with the smell of bread baking and the sweet scent of icing, and the bank with the solid stone exterior. They’re all still there, just under different names now, and my parents, who still live there, still call the drug store by its old name, even though it’s changed owners and become a jewelry shop. In the winter the Christmas decorations line the street, and each Memorial Day there is a parade that starts at the Schaller Memorial, the veterans hall, and proceeds up Louisiana Avenue, taking a turn when it reaches the Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial (“We have met the enemy and they are ours…”) and marches down West Front Street past the old Victorian homes that overlook the Maumee River.

When I was a kid the parade was made up of the veterans groups like the American Legion and the VFW, and platoons of soldiers and veterans, including, through the 1970’s, the last remaining veterans of World War I. They wore their uniforms and their medals, and those that couldn’t march sat in the back seat of convertibles, waving slowly to the crowds that lined the sidewalks. They were followed by the marching band from the high school, the color guard, the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the drum and bugle corps, floats from church groups, all of the city fire equipment, antique cars, and the service groups like the Shriners, the Elks, and the Kiwanis Club. After the last float came all the kids on their bicycles decorated with streamers, bunting, flags, and all the patriotic paperwork we could muster. My friends and I would try to outdo each other, and it had less to do with patriotism than it did with seeing how many rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper we could thread in between the spokes of our wheels.

I was about ten or so on one Memorial Day when I spent a lot of time getting my Schwinn Racer ready for the big parade. It was a perfect day; the sky was a sparkling spring blue and all the floats, cars, and fire trucks were gleaming in the sun as the parade organized on Indiana Avenue in front of the Memorial Hall. The high school band in their yellow and black uniforms marched in precision as the major led off with a Sousa tune, and as the parade slowly made its way down the avenue we could see the crowds along the sidewalks waiting and waving. As we waited our turn we wheeled our bikes in circles, just like the Shriners in their little go-karts, and finally we got the signal that it was time for the kids to roll. There was an organized rush to lead off, and then we were slowly pedaling down the street, waving to everybody outside the library, the Chevy dealership, even the people lined up on the roof of the pizza parlor. I looked for my dad shooting movies with the 8mm camera, but didn’t see him. Oh, well, it didn’t matter; we were supposed to meet at the home of friends who were hosting a post-parade picnic in their backyard. Their house was at the end of the parade route, so that was the perfect place to pull out of the parade and have the first of many Faygo Redpops that summer.

But for some reason I stayed with the parade, on down West Front, and then up West Boundary and past the gates of Fort Meigs Cemetery. The floats and the fire trucks were gone, but what was left of the parade — the color guard and the veterans — went through the gates and along the path. There was no music now, just a solemn drumbeat keeping a steady muffled tapping. The color guard turned at a small stone memorial, and then past it to a gravesite where a family was gathered; a mother in a black dress, a father in a grey suit, and a teenage son and daughter, looking somber and out of place. The grave was still fresh, the dirt mounded over, the headstone a simple marker with a flag. A minister spoke some words, and then the color guard snapped to attention. A volley of rifle fire, then Taps, and then a tall young soldier in dress blues handed a folded flag to the mother, who murmured her thanks and tried to smile.

I suddenly realized that I felt out of place there with my gaudily-patriotic bike and my red-white-and-blue striped shirt. No one noticed me, though, and when the people started to slowly move away from the gravesite and back to the entrance, I followed along until I was able to ride slowly back to our friends’ house, park my bike with all the others, and find my parents, who probably hadn’t even noticed that I was not there with all the other kids running around and playing on the lawn.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

This post originally appeared on May 25, 2009.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Felice Cinco De Mayo

19 Mexico

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It’s a big deal in Mexico and in parts of this country with a large Mexican population, like California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico (where I had some of the best chile rellenos with enough green chile to take the top of your head off), although it meant more to some than others. I had a guy I worked with who was of Mexican descent who actually asked me, “Hey, when is Cinco de Mayo?” (We always suspected that he was a burrito shy of a full combo platter anyway.)

Here in South Florida, outside of Homestead with its large Mexican population (and some of the best food in the state), it’s not a big deal other than party time and a double margarita, the same way this multiethnic community deals with other national holidays like St. Patrick’s Day; we don’t really know why we celebrate it (as if defeating the French in a battle was like a huge military victory in the first place), but any excuse to eat and drink is good enough, so why fight it?

Pass the salsa.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday

The Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) always coincides with Easter weekend. It’s not that Quakers acknowledge or celebrate Easter (some do, some don’t), but it’s usually a time when families can gather at the retreat center in central Florida and have a good and meaningful time together.

My friend (and Friend) Steve took this picture in 2013 as Friends gathered.

SEYM 03-29-13

Let this be the setting for the day.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick’s Day

If you’re Irish and it means something to you, then best wishes on St. Patrick’s Day. Here in America it’s another excuse to party, drink way too much, and contribute more to the stereotypes that the Irish all sound like Barry Fitzgerald (“Faith ‘n’ begorah, Father O’Malley!”).

According to my sources, St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal here than it is in Ireland, and they treat it the same way we do when the French go nuts over Jerry Lewis; it’s an inexplicable cultural phenomenon more than the celebration of a saint. But if it’s all fun and games and no one gets hurt, hey, have fun.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, the federal holiday mashed together to honor Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday which used to be holidays on their own. This one generically honors all presidents and remembering the times when we had one, and it’s a mid-winter break for schools and a day off for those of us who work in them.

Things will be a little quiet around here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Boxing Day

In many parts of the world, including Canada, today is Boxing Day and it’s a holiday, too.

The name derives from the tradition of giving seasonal gifts, on the day after Christmas, to less wealthy people and social inferiors, which was later extended to various workpeople such as labourers and servants.

The traditional recorded celebration of Boxing Day has long included giving money and other gifts to charitable institutions, the needy and people in service positions. The European tradition has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown and there are some claims that it goes back to the late Roman/early Christian era.

In the United Kingdom it certainly became a custom of the nineteenth century Victorians for tradesmen to collect their ‘Christmas boxes’ or gifts in return for good and reliable service throughout the year on the day after Christmas.[1]

The establishment of Boxing Day as a defined public Holiday under the legislation that created the UK’s Bank Holidays started the separation of ‘Boxing Day’ from the ‘Feast of St Stephen’ and today it is almost entirely a secular holiday with a tradition of shopping and post Christmas sales starting.

As mentioned, it’s also St. Stephen’s day, which, unless you’re up on your Catholic mythology, you only know about because of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslaus.

At any rate, today is the day to clean up after the holiday if you celebrated or head out to the mall if you want to exchange the mystery gift or use the gift card you got from a friend at work. Or you could stay at home and nosh on the leftovers from Christmas dinner, start writing your thank-you notes.

As for me, I’m taking the Pontiac to the shop to replace the headliner and then come back and work on my new play.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunday Reading

Christmas was Allen’s favorite holiday.  For the fifteen years we were together, he went all out: a tree (had to be artificial because he was allergic to some pines), wreaths, and lights — oh, the lights.  He put them up in the windows, along the mantel, and of course on the tree itself.  He loved the music, too, but not the traditional Mormon Tabernacle Choir stuff; he introduced me to the George Winston / Windham Hill playlist as well as The Roches, much of which is still ingrained in me.  He went all in for Christmas dinner with the family, and when we lived near his parents we were there for days cooking, eating, and sharing, much of it from the German tradition that his family brought to Kansas in the 1800’s and then through the generations.  This WASP/Quaker learned a lot about some sugar-bombed Christmas cookies, cakes, and even liquor (before we sobered up, of course).  He brought that exuberance, that child-like happiness, to my family when we lived in Michigan and would spend the day with my family and sharing our traditions as well.

After we separated we still kept in touch, trading presents and phone calls on the holidays, hearing the nieces and nephews and their kids and grandkids in the background, and it brought a bright light to the quiet celebration that I now go through living alone.

That’s why this first Christmas after Allen’s death has been more reflective than joyful, more a recollection of happier times even when, at the time, we were just getting by, or so it seemed.  But I know that he would be bummed if I spent the day in mourning; “C’mon,” he’d say, “it’ll be fun.”  And it will be.  I’ll spend the day with my friends here with people who are as close to me as family, as joyful as he was, and the rest of my winter break will be doing what he knew was my true calling; writing, listening, and sharing.

Back on Thanksgiving I wrote him a love note about our lives together, finally able to put in words what it meant and how it shaped me and made me who I am.  So here it is.

Allen’s Big Adventure

A Love Note from Philip

Well, Allen, you finally did it.  You’re off on the biggest adventure of all; so big that it’s taken me almost six months to put my thoughts together and write them down.

But life with you has always been an adventure, from the moment we met on that spring evening in April 1984 at the dance at Eldorado Springs outside Boulder and our first date the next night – you had me with the flowers you bought from the street vendor on the way to my house – and for the next fifteen years.  Sometimes it was scary and harsh, but no matter what, we were together, and so many times, whether it was snorkeling on the reef with the barracuda, or skiing the double-black diamond runs at Snowmass, or sailing on the waves of Lake Michigan, or wandering the streets of Paris in December in jeans that didn’t fit because your luggage was lost on the missed flight, or climbing the steps of Notre Dame to pet the gargoyles, or standing in the Vatican to see the pope bless your mom’s rosary, or climbing to the top of St. Peter’s to see the roof of the Sistine Chapel, or the tower of Pisa, or driving through the night from Boulder to Northport to surprise my dad for his birthday, or riding in the bunk of a semi to get to Hays for the family reunion and being swept up in your family’s loving arms and you in mine, or renting the house on Bross Street in Longmont, or the house on Michigan Street in Petoskey, or owning our own home on Canary Lane in Albuquerque and planting a garden in each one of them, or showing up at the gym with Sam cupped in your hands and making him our companion for the rest of his life, or buying me that 1959 Buick for $150, or wandering through the Painted Desert and the canyons of New Mexico, or going to Montserrat and Jamaica and Tobago and wandering the beaches, or standing backstage waiting for our cue to be the boat in “Candide,” or the many, many other things we did, including the weekend in October of 1992 when we went to Traverse City and began our journey together to sobriety.  For every one of those times, you always said, “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

I look around my house and still see you here.  The chairs and table we bought at Sears for the house in Albuquerque.  The O’Keeffe prints from Santa Fe.  The Gandalf candle in the bookcase.  The fish mobile made of palm fronds from Jamaica that hangs over the sink in the kitchen.  The shirts in the closet that still fit both of us.  The Pontiac in the garage that once had both our names on the title.  Our rings in the little carved box that also holds the slip of paper with your phone number on it.  The dedication in my dissertation to the man who showed that wisdom is not measured by degrees.  The character who shows up in my writing again and again.  The hundreds of pictures, mementos, and kitchen utensils; traces, as the old song goes, of love.

We were never married in the cold and unfeeling eyes of the state or in the thrall of a church, but even if it was unwritten or unvowed, we were married in every other way, and despite the mere fact that we separated for reasons I never truly grasped, we never let go of each other.  You were always going to be a part of me, and when we talked on the phone, each call ended with “I love you,” and “love you too.”  And while we went our separate ways and found new lives in different places and with new friends, our time together was and will always be the best time of my life.

I don’t believe in the superstitions of Heaven and Hell or Life Eternal; those are things the mind has concocted because it is incapable of comprehending its own mortality.  But I do believe in the spirituality of everlasting because as long as I and your family and your friends and the people who knew you remember you, you’re not really gone.  You’re just in the next room, even if it’s just that little pewter urn next to your high school picture.  Your number is still on my phone.  Your letters are still in my drawer.  I can still hear your laugh.

So when you set off on your last adventure that quiet night in the house you grew up in Longmont last June, I knew in my heart that I was losing a part of me in one way, but keeping it with me forever.  Grief does not care about time or distance, and while I may not technically be widowed, I am very sure that what I feel, what I miss, what stops me in mid-sentence, is every bit as real as it gets.  And, to quote you, it sucks.  But it also shows me how much I truly loved you.

I know that you went in peace and on your own terms, and I know that you were ready to go.  Because, as Tinker Bell says in “Peter Pan,” to die is an awfully big adventure.

I will always call you sweetheart.

And Merry Christmas, sweetheart.

Doonesbury — Almost made it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Holiday Spirits

This warms the cockles of my heart.

Diana Rowland’s husband bought her the dragons as a birthday gift a few years ago.

The inflatable lawn ornaments, black and red, purple and green, were the epitome of cool to the former police officer and morgue worker, who is now a writer of sci-fi books.

And after what Rowland says was a smashing debut one Halloween, she decided to set the dragons up again for Christmas, outfitting them for the holiday season with garland, Santa hats and blue shawls meant to evoke biblical stories. The neighborhood loved them, she said. And she did, too.

This year was scheduled to be the fourth that the dragons would uneventfully grace her yard for Christmas.

But then an anonymous letter came in the mail.

“YOUR DRAGON DISPLAY IS ONLY MARGINALLY ACCEPTABLE AT HALLOWEEN,” it said. “IT IS TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE AT CHRISTMAS. IT MAKES YOUR NEIGHBORS WONDER IF YOU ARE INVOLVED IN A DEMONIC CULT.”

It continued.

“PLEASE CONTINUE REMOVING THE DRAGONS. MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND HELP YOU TO KNOW THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS.”

It sounds more like the anonymous neighbor is the one involved with a demonic cult: one that demands that everyone else follow their religion or face judgment.

Rowland did what any normal person would do in 2018; she posted the angry letter on social media.

“Our dragon holiday display got fan mail!” she wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of both the letter, and, it must be acknowledged, the dragons somewhat demonically lit up at night.

But in regards to the question of what to do about the dragons, she wavered for a moment.

Had Rowland chosen to take the dragons down, her actions surely could have been explained by what is commonly referred to as the “holiday spirit:” the idea that people somehow become better versions of themselves during the last week of December.

But perhaps the holiday is misunderstood, or worse, misconstrued, by the writers of television advertisements and holiday cards. For in truth, there are thousands of experiences like Rowland’s out there for every Christmas miracle.

So Rowland decided to go another route, which she again announced on Twitter, a response she said to the “judgy-mcjudgyface neighbor,” who had written her.

“I have added more dragons,” she wrote.

Good for her.  Dragons are one of the few mythical creatures that have global appeal: they show up in just about every culture’s story-telling, from Wales (look who’s on the flag) to China and everywhere in between.  They can be good, like Eragon, or bad, like Smaug, but nowhere are they considered “demonic” unless you’re one of those people that thinks that anything that doesn’t worship the Baby Jesus and his televangical minions “demonic.”  And dragons have about as much to do with the Christmas as Santa and his flying reindeer.  (Wouldn’t it be amazing to sub in dragons for reindeer?  For one thing, they wouldn’t need Rudolph.  Who needs a red nose when you can exhale fire?)

So decorate your lawn with mythical creatures for a couple of weeks.  It would go very nicely with the other myths, like the creche and angels.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Reading

No Gift Keeps On Giving  — Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic on the no-gifting trend.

This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”

Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.

Now, with the extra time she and her family have, they paint pottery together, cook, go on runs, and play cards. Plus, they get meaningful presents through the regifting agreement, such as the Led Zeppelin record Hund received from her dad, purchased when he was in high school. The new gifting protocol has been a joy. “The first year I thought I would be sad about it,” she said, “and I really wasn’t.”

Hund is one of the many holiday celebrants who have been questioning and revising their long-held gift-giving traditions—or, in some cases, scrapping them altogether. No single cause unites these opt-outers, but a few motivations regularly pop up: They want to resist consumerism, restore the religious focus of the holidays, and/or avoid harming the environment. Above all, they want to spend less money on things and more time with one another.

According to a recent survey from the personal-finance website Bankrate, almost half of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they’d like to on holiday gifts, with parents especially likely to feel put upon. When presented with a slew of options that might lessen their financial stress, respondents were most willing to entertain the idea of giving gifts only to their immediate family or of seeking out coupons and sales—64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, said those courses of action would be acceptable. Those surveyed rated other alternatives—giving homemade gifts, regifting, or buying things secondhand—as much less enticing. At the very bottom of the list was skipping gifts entirely, which received a tepid 13 percent approval rating.

Still, some people are trying it out. Raagini Appadurai, a 26-year-old educator and social-justice advocate living in Toronto, told me that her family—her two sisters, her parents, and herself—made a no-gifts pact this year. “When we remove material purchasing and consumption from the table, we are forced to question what we are bringing to [the holiday] instead—individually and collectively,” she said. “After our family reflection on this, the answer has been clear: Ourselves, we bring more of ourselves.” She told me that her family’s Christmas-morning plan is to gather around the tree as in years past, whether there are presents underneath it or not.

Some people also consider gift-giving a distraction from the religious significance of the holidays. Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with their 20-month-old daughter. They are Catholic, don’t exchange gifts with one another for Christmas, and give only small presents to their parents. “Advent is supposed to be this quiet, somber, reflective period during which you’re preparing to celebrate the incredible thing that was God sending his son to Earth,” Tricia says. “That goes very poorly with a focus on buying things and merrymaking.”

As families have reconsidered their gift-giving practices, some of them have gotten creative about what to do instead. In 2015, the Orzechowskis, a family living in Washington, D.C., started taking an annual trip together, with their relatives funding different aspects of the vacation (such as admission to a museum in the city they’re visiting) instead of buying physical gifts. And Jennifer Knepper, a 39-year-old nurse, started an “alternative-gift fair” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives. The fair, which has been running for more than 10 years, offers fair-trade foodstuffs and the chance to make gift donations to charities, among other things.

Of course, giving fewer or less-expensive gifts is often not a choice, but a necessity—in the Bankrate survey, people earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely than those in any other income bracket to say that they don’t give holiday gifts. Many of the people I talked with for this article mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a choice, and explained that they amended their celebrations in response to personal reservations or discomfort they had about their gift-giving tradition, not on the recommendation of some celebrity or lifestyle guru.

In particular, many said they were rethinking their gifting in response to the pressures of consumerism around the holidays. David Tucker, a 33-year-old engineer at a software company who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told me that he and his wife stopped giving gifts three years ago. “It was a mixture of a lot of things,” he said, “but we both started to share a disdain for the holidays” and the marketing involved, especially after a couple financially tight years. They found themselves surrounded by stuff, and not needing any more of it.

So they started donating their annual gift budget to charity, which means that their holiday shopping now takes just a few minutes. Tucker said that this mentality has shaped his habits during the rest of the year—he and his wife now volunteer more at their local food bank. “Why should it stop there?,” he remembered thinking about his holiday donations.

A few advocacy groups encourage people to reevaluate their gift-giving in the way that Tucker and his wife have. One is Buy Nothing Christmas, a movement started by Canadian Mennonites that proudly has “no membership, no fees, no plaques, no club cards.” Its goal, as stated on its website, is to “to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”

Another organization is New Dream, a nonprofit devoted to rethinking consumption. New Dream has been running a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign for 13 years, and five years ago launched SoKind, an online gift registry that allows people to share with their loved ones their desire for not just things, but nonmaterial gifts such as music lessons, home-cooked meals, and donations to charity. The platform is meant for any occasion (including weddings and graduations) and features almost 13,000 wish lists.

Other people have the environment in mind when thinking about what to give. Keya Chatterjee, a D.C. resident who runs a climate-focused nonprofit, and her husband only give gifts if they have been used, are made from recycled materials, or will reduce the recipient’s environmental footprint. “On the emissions-reduction side, many people have appreciated (and some have appreciated less) that I generally give people soft lighting LED light bulbs and with a note to ‘have a bright year,’” she wrote in an email. Other gifts she likes to give are solar phone chargers, library books (with a holiday note and the due date), and hot-water bottles (for warming just one’s bed instead of heating the whole house). “Needless to say, not everyone wants our gifts,” she said.

Chatterjee added that her family “heavily discourage[s] gifts to us,” though notes that it took about a decade for everyone to follow this request. Others I talked with encountered similar resistance from their relatives when expressing their gifting preferences, but for the most part, people came around and were even grateful.

Another contingent that’s thinking deeply about holiday spending is adherents of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which consists of cutting spending to spartan levels to stop working well before one’s 60s. Comment threads on Reddit and the personal-finance blog Mr. Money Mustache document some savers’ attempts to reconcile their commitment to their financial plan with their desire not to be grinchy.

All of the people I talked with for this article seemed committed to their new traditions, though some parents and parents-to-be of young children were aware that their kids might not be so keen on the concept. Heather Hund said she does “really want to stick to it” as her toddler grows up, and David Tucker acknowledged that if he and his wife have children, it’d be a “huge challenge” to keep up their no-gift policy.

This year, Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz will be giving their daughter some used coloring books passed down from a neighbor and perhaps a small stocking stuffer. At the age of 20 months, she hasn’t been briefed on her parents’ gifting philosophy. Later, “if she complains about other people getting lots of stuff,” Tricia says, “I think we’ll tell her, ‘Tough noodles.’”

My family stopped exchanging gifts between ourselves years ago when we were all spread out across the country and then started adding children, in-laws, grandchildren.  It got both cumbersome and guilt-ridden with the forced merriment and a rebellion against the consumerism.  I still buy gifts for a few friends, but it’s being together that really matters, and I’ll see my family after New Year’s.

One Small Step — Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker goes behind the scenes of Virgin Galatic’s first space mission.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mark Stucky left work early and went to his stepdaughter’s place to hang window blinds. Stucky, the lead test pilot at Virgin Galactic, was expecting to fulfill a lifelong dream—flying a rocket ship into space—the next morning, but he was trying not to make more of it than necessary. And so, after he put up the blinds, he drove home, had an early dinner, soaked in his hot tub, and was asleep by eight.

He was up before his 3 A.M. alarm, not because he was nervous—a bout of butterflies had come and gone earlier in the week—but, as he told me later, “Because I was in the zone.” He ate a cup of yogurt on his way out the door. Sometimes, before test flights, he listened to music. On Thursday, he drove in silence.

Stucky had dreamed of travelling into space since he was three years old, when he and his dad watched on TV as John Glenn orbited Earth. He applied for NASA’s astronaut program several times, and got close, but never made the cut. When, in 2009, he was hired as a test pilot by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company on contract to design, build, and test Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, he thought he might be close. But program delays and a crash, in 2014, which killed his best friend, Mike Alsbury, and left the spaceship in pieces, made Stucky wonder if he would ever get there. Now, at the age of sixty, he was about to attempt to soar two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet, or fifty miles, above the surface of Earth—beyond the boundary of what the U.S. government deems space.

It was a clear, crisp morning in Mojave, California. Nicola Pecile, who was piloting the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which would carry the rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, up to its release point, spotted a comet in the southwest sky. Venus shone brightly overhead. By 7 A.M., about a thousand people, including officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, had gathered on the flight line. Eleven minutes later, WhiteKnightTwo sped down the runway and took off, with Stucky and his co-pilot, the former NASA astronaut C. J. Sturckow, below, in SpaceShipTwo. George Whitesides, the C.E.O. of Virgin Galactic, said he hadn’t felt as anxious in years: “This is right up there with childbirth in terms of nervousness levels.”

As WhiteKnightTwo climbed, Stucky ran through his final checklists. He had flown five previous powered flights, burning the hybrid rocket motor for just more than thirty seconds, coasting above a hundred thousand feet, but on Thursday he planned to burn the motor for almost a minute—enough, it was hoped, to propel SpaceShipTwo to the fifty-mile boundary.

An hour after takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo, now forty thousand feet above the desert, dropped the spaceship and banked away. Then, on Stucky’s command, Sturckow fired the rocket and they were off. Once they broke the sound barrier, Stucky began trimming the horizontal stabilizers, increasing the vehicle’s pitch, until the nose was pointing nearly straight up. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Forty seconds. Even though they were pushing into “unknown, uncharted territory,” the longer they burned the rocket motor, the better SpaceShipTwo seemed to perform. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said.

After sixty seconds, Sturckow switched off the motor, letting SpaceShipTwo slice through the last remnants of atmosphere. While the sky darkened around them, sunlight filled the cockpit. Absent gravity, Stucky removed his glove and let it float around for a moment.

Back down on the flight line, Enrico Palermo, the president of the Spaceship Company, the subsidiary of Virgin Galactic that built SpaceShipTwo, stood at a lectern onstage, calling out the vehicle’s altitude:

“Two hundred and forty thousand feet.”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand feet.”

“Two-sixty.”

“Two hundred and . . .”—he paused, awaiting confirmation from mission control—“two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet.”

The crowd whooped and cheered. “Still going up,” Palermo said. “Apogee: two hundred and seventy-one thousand feet.”

Todd Ericson, one of the test pilots and Virgin Galactic’s vice-president for safety, reached over and gripped Whitesides’s hand. “We’re in space,” Ericson said.

Fifteen minutes later, Stucky and Sturckow landed, stepping out of SpaceShipTwo to enthusiastic applause. Branson, wearing a distressed-leather bomber jacket, took the stage and said, “Who enjoyed that?” The outline of a single tear streaked the side of his face—it was a moment of tremendous joy, catharsis, and relief for him, the team, and their families. Stucky’s wife, Cheryl Agin, shed tears throughout the entire flight.

Stucky and Sturckow joined Branson onstage. Stucky reached into the calf pocket of his flight suit and presented Branson with a blue-and-green stress ball, modelled on the Earth, that had just been in space. He then fished out a small, black jewelry box, which contained an engagement ring that belonged to a flight-test engineer on Stucky’s team named Brandon Parrish. Parrish called his girlfriend, Veronica McGowan, a fellow-engineer, up onto the stage with him and proposed. When she accepted, Stucky popped the cork on a champagne bottle, shook it up, and sprayed the couple. Afterward, one of Parrish’s colleagues said to him, “Way to set the bar too fucking high, bro.”

When the ceremony ended, Stucky, the pilots, and the mission-control team gathered back at the main hangar. The pilots toasted with paper cups of whiskey, and then went to Denny’s for lunch. Stucky and Agin split a hamburger, and the pilots showed one another the latest cockpit photos and read selected tweets aloud. Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted his congratulations: “the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years!”

Stucky checked his watch and noted that they were due back at the hangar in fifteen minutes for more post-flight reviews. After all, SpaceShipTwo was being tested for regular and repeated missions, and not merely a one-off flight. There was flight data to plug into the models and run through the simulator, Stucky said. “You know, to see if there’s anything more we can learn.” Virgin Galactic could begin commercial service—flying customers to space—as early as late next year.

[Photo by Virgin Galactic]

Doonesbury — Final note.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving

When I was a kid growing up outside of Toledo, we had some relatives in the area, and we also belonged to a local tennis and social club that served as a gathering place for a group of families like ours and we often went there for holiday dinners. It relieved my mom from cooking one of the two big meals at the holidays; if we had Thanksgiving at home, then we went to the club or another relative’s place for Christmas, or vice versa. We also would have the Thanksgiving meal later in the day — usually around the normal dinner time — because we had season tickets to the Detroit Lions football team, and we would go up to Detroit to sit in the freezing cold bleachers to watch the Lions play their traditional Thanksgiving Day game, then come home to the dinner.

It’s been a while since my family has gotten together for Thanksgiving. We’ve all moved on to different places and have our own families. It’s been many years since my entire immediate family — Mom, Dad, and my three siblings and their families — were together for the occasion.

However, there was one Thanksgiving that I’ll never forget: 1967. I was a freshman at St. George’s, the boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island (and also alma mater of Howard Dean and Tucker Carlson). It was my first extended time away from home and I was miserable. My older brother and sister were also away at school; one in New Jersey, the other in Virginia. My parents made arrangements for us all to get together in New York City that weekend, and they booked rooms at the Plaza Hotel. We saw two Broadway musicals — Mame with Angela Lansbury and Henry, Sweet Henry with Don Ameche — and a little musical in Greenwich Village called Now Is The Time For All Good Men…. We went shopping in Greenwich Village, took hansom cab rides in Central Park, had lunch at Toots Shor’s (and got Cab Calloway’s autograph), dinner at Trader Vic’s and Luchow’s, and saw all the sights that a kid from Ohio on his second trip to NYC (the first being the World’s Fair in 1964) could pack into one four-day weekend. Oh, and we had the big Thanksgiving dinner in the Oak Room at the Plaza with all the trimmings. That night we went down to the nightclub below the Plaza and listened to smoky jazz played by a trio and a lovely woman on piano…could it have been Blossom Dearie?

It was a magical weekend. To this day I still remember the sights and sounds and sensations, and the deep sadness that settled back over me as I boarded the chartered bus that took me back to the dank purgatory of that endless winter at school overlooking the grey Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve had a lot of wonderful and memorable Thanksgivings since then at home and with friends, everywhere from Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and even one in Jamaica, but that weekend at the Plaza will always be special.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Safe Travels

The farthest I plan to travel for Thanksgiving is three miles north of here to the home of Bob and The Old Professor for the celebration tomorrow afternoon.  But a lot of you are either already on the road or hitting it today; some going far distances to be with friends and family,and well-armed with food and talking points for the politically-opposite family members.

Knowing that, things are going to be a bit quiet here for the rest of the week.  Enjoy your time off if you get it, enjoy your friends and family if you have them.

Photo Credit.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Day Off

Today is the federal and public school holiday to mark Veterans Day, but since all of the ceremonies and the commemoration took place yesterday on the actual day, today is mostly a day when the banks are closed, school is out, and therefore I’m taking today to catch up on the chores I didn’t do when I was otherwise occupied on Saturday and Sunday.

If you missed my annual Veterans Day tribute, scroll down to yesterday.

Anyway, enjoy the day off if you have it.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Veterans Day

One hundred years ago today — November 11, 1918 — the guns fell silent across Europe, marking the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I. It used to be called Armistice Day. Because it falls on a Sunday, tomorrow will be the official holiday to commemorate Veterans Day.

It’s become my tradition here to mark the day with the poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872-1918)

I honor my father, two uncles, a cousin, a great uncle, many friends and colleagues, and the millions known and unknown who served our country in the armed forces.

My father (left) and his twin, 1944