years ago in Alabama, I was enrolled in a summer kindergarten class
taught by Mrs. Peggy McDowell. She had remodeled the large basement of
her house to serve as a classroom for a dozen or so children from my
We learned about numbers and letters there. We drew and painted and
made things from clay. We played games in her yard. After afternoon
milk and cookies, we pulled out cots and took naps.
When we graduated from Mrs. McDowell’s kindergarten, it was an
actual graduation. With our parents watching, we donned caps and gowns
and walked across the patio to proudly accept rolled diplomas from our
teacher. She played Elgar’s traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” on a
portable record player, and today I can’t hear that song without
getting misty-eyed at the memory. I remember feeling for the first time
in my life that I was marking an important milestone, even if I
couldn’t have put it in those words at that age.
Thirty-six years ago today, my fellow kindergarteners and I followed
Mrs. McDowell up the stairs to the house where she lived with her
family. These stairs were usually forbidden, and even though we had
permission to climb them, we were quiet as mice. Once upstairs, we sat
cross-legged on the carpeted floor of her den. And on a large
black-and-white TV set, we watched in wonder as a man in a spacesuit
bounced across the surface of the moon.
That night after dinner I looked up at the moon from my backyard. I
thought about the men bouncing around up there, and wondered what they
had for dinner. It was a warm, humid night in Alabama. Were they cold
up there? Crickets chirped all around me. What did it sound like on the
moon? I wondered what we looked like to the astronauts. I wondered
about the universe and my place in it as I never had before.
Not counting my parents, Mrs. McDowell was my first teacher. In many ways, she was the most important one I ever had.
In Alabama, a state that has never put education high on its list of
priorities, she devoted 22 years of her life to nurturing hundreds,
maybe thousands of children. With love and imagination, she made sure
they got off to a good start.
Peggy Bailey McDowell died this week, and her family laid her to rest in the small town where I was born.
Today we commemorate the moon landing, as we should. But in my heart
and every action I take, I'm honoring an amazing and generous teacher
named Mrs. McDowell. She showed young children that they could dream of
the moon on a summer day. And she gave us the tools and encouragement
to live in the wonderful world that spins below it.
Thank you, Mrs. McDowell. I'll never stop looking up. Promise.
The Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle that's seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now being used to study the environment.
Earlier this year I wrote a story on the Global Hawk's new mission for Unmanned Systems, the magazine of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. I traveled to Edwards Air Force Base for the unveiling of the aircraft and interviewed the program scientists and engineers. It's a fascinating science-based project using a drone that can stay aloft for 30 hours, allowing it to travel from the equator to the polar regions and back in one flight.
It's a members-only magazine so the online content is restricted to subscribers, but NASA liked the article so much they asked to make it available at their website. You can download a 4.6 MB PDF of my story here (the photos are mine as well).
It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s something I love to do, and it doesn’t
hurt anybody. And the world probably doesn’t need any more songs, but I
need more songs. It’s satisfying and lovely to do. I feel better, and
as a band—I think I can speak for everyone—we feel better making
something that wasn’t there ten minutes ago. Whatever spirit there is
in the universe, I think that puts you closer to it. The act of
creation, you know, it’s a very powerful thing, and very gratifying. I
wish it on everyone. I wish everyone could enjoy making something that
wasn’t there before.
As the late comedian Sam Kinison might have screamed: Oh, I remember the fuckin' DAAAYYYY!!!!
Let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed almost every cigarette I smoked. It made me feel good and I'm sure I looked pretty damn cool while doing it. But by 1989 I was up to a pack-and-a-half a day, pretty much lighting one in the morning and chain-smoking off that all day long. Yeah, not cool or healthy or anything positive by that stage.
If you want to quit, you can. I went cold turkey. There was a street I knew I was gonna cross that morning as I drove across town. I told myself that once I crossed that line, no more. The cigarette I was smoking and the half-pack of Winston Lights and even the lighter went right out the window. Yeah, it was littering and that sucks too, and I'm happy to say that I've never littered since.
I can still remember exhaling that last lungful of smoke. It drifted out the car window like a ghost. That was the easy part. The ensuing nicotine withdrawal just about drove me crazy: irritability, migraines, sleeplessness, etc. I was a basket case for the six or eight weeks it took for the nicotine to leave my system. Even then, the cravings continued with a force that almost broke me many times.
Here's what showed me just how deeply that monkey had dug its claws into my back. For three or four years afterward, I had lucid dreams that I was smoking, just sitting there with a cigarette, lighting it and smoking the damn thing. And enjoying it. Upon awakening, I'd be crushed with this dense concrete layer of oppressive guilt. Because of the dream's tactile clarity -- I could taste that damn smoke -- I was convinced the dream was actually a memory, something I'd done the night before. I'd berate myself for a good five or ten minutes: Damn it, how could I go all weaksauce and blow it like that? Then the reality would hit me like a scalding pot of coffee poured directly into my brain. Holy crap, that memory ... was just a damn dream.
Quitting is one of the hardest things I ever did. There are a lot more options available now than there were back then. However you decide to quit, your mileage may vary and it may take you several tries. Just remember that nicotine is more addictive than heroin in the way it binds to your receptors.
That's right. Compared to what you're gonna go through, junkies have it easy.
Which reminds me: Over at The House Next Door, Lauren Wissot's got a terrific essay on Alex Cox's incredible 1986 bio-pic Sid & Nancy, now available in a spiffy new edition from Criterion
My favorite magazine, New Scientist, has a special feature on the state of science fiction. It's a somewhat cursory overview with no real surprises -- scientists approve of 2001: A Space Odyssey and hate The Matrix sequels. It is nice to learn they think highly of the incredible novels of Iain M. Banks and Joss Whedon's fun pulp throwback Serenity.
Here's Ursula LeGuin's summation of what's interesting in the written world:
Science fiction that pretended to show us the future couldn't keep up
with the present. It failed to foresee the electronic revolution, for
example. Now that science and technology move ever faster, much science
fiction is really fantasy in a space suit: wishful thinking about
galactic empires and cybersex - often a bit reactionary. Things are
livelier over on the social and political side, where human nature,
which doesn't revise itself every few years, can be relied on to
provide good solid novel stuff.
Methinks they doth protest too much, but James Randi's website asked five brainiacs to review the scientific accuracy of Fox's new TV show Fringe, the X-Files clone that was just picked up for a full season.
On the one hand, c'mon -- it's a sci-fi show whose stated intention of exploring "fringe science" clearly gives it a pass on the real world. On the other hand, this is pretty funny:
Maybe Fringe would be good if, before watching every episode,
you had a lot of alcohol. I'm not sure. I'd guess that's what J.J.
Abrams was doing when he created the concept. It's crap masquerading as
I'm hoping this show can find its footing soon. Only one episode to date -- "The Arrival" -- has been worth re-watching. I think Fringe's problems have nothing to do with pseudo-science at all, and everything to do with one-note characters who offer little emotional investment.