Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real people and balls on the moon

Wallace and Gromit on the moon. Never got the ball back. Picture from Aardman Animation.
It feels like we went and kicked all of our balls into the air. On the moon. And they haven't come back down yet; we're kind of standing around looking up and waiting around for them to come back down. No new jobs yet. No new money yet. Everything feels like a held breath. Or a ball kicked on the moon.

Casey wrote a paper for school this week about Alan Shepard, the second man into space, the one who hit golf balls on the moon during the Apollo 14 lunar mission. He smuggled some golf balls and the head of a nine-iron up to the moon, then attached the driver to the end of the handle of the tool they used to collect rocks and things on the moon. He managed to hit 2 balls, but he had to do it one handed and awkwardly because of the bulky space suit.
"Miles and miles and miles..." Picture from the NASA archives.
Wonder if they ever figured out where the golf balls ended up? Some people got incensed (and still do) at the utter frivolity of hitting golf balls on the moon when it cost so much to send men to the moon. But here all these years later, what is it that people remember about that lunar mission, or Alan Shepard? Test pilots today still use what's called 'the Shepard's prayer' when they're about to go out: "Dear lord, don't let me &*$! up." Well, maybe they know a little more if they watched the movie 'The Right Stuff'. Casey hasn't seen it yet, but now he wants to see it because of his research about Alan Shepard. Why is he interested in finding out more? Because Alan Shepard had a sense of humor. That comes through in even the driest accounts about the man, and that made him human and interesting and fun to this not-quite 11 year old kid who's never cared a whole lot about space travel.

Casey had to write an essay last week about a person he'd like to meet, and he wrote about Abraham Lincoln. He had to research him a bit to be able to talk about him; he already knew the usual historical facts that everyone knows, like Lincoln was the 12th President, he freed the slaves, he was a great man, all those little factoids that the kids get fed at school in small easily remembered bites. But as Casey researched deeper this time, he found out other things that made the man more human, more approachable. I have a number of books about Lincoln since I've always admired him, and so we looked through the books and talked about things that happened to Lincoln and what his life was like. Somehow talking together while looking at photographs made it all much more real to Casey, like looking at family pictures while your mom tells you stories about your relatives. He discovered that Lincoln had crazy unruly hair, much like himself; that Lincoln was reputed to be shy, but managed to overcome it. I told him stories of what I'd read and what things had touched me, in a sort of an oral and visual storytelling approach, and that led Casey into learning more about him.
A younger Lincoln, before he became President
He had 4 sons with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. 2 of them died young, the third after Lincoln himself had died; only one of the four sons lived into adulthood. Willie died while they were in the White House during the Civil War. He most likely died because the water in the White House was seriously polluted and he became sick with what was probably dysentery. Mary Todd must have had some serious mental illnesses; she had serious problems even when she was young but her mental problems became completely debilitating after losing her sons and her husband. Lincoln himself probably suffered from depression but in light of all that he went through with his family and the war it might have been more surprising if he hadn't been depressed. He apparently loved folk music, and especially liked humorous songs, though he was roundly criticized by the press for listening to funny songs on a few occasions while the war was on. Apparently public figures are not supposed to have a sense of humor or do anything light-hearted, if media reactions to Alan Shepard's golf balls and Lincoln's goofy sense of humor are anything to go by.

Those little glimpses into a sense of humor, the family lives of those men, was what Casey found most fascinating. He pondered over the notion that even very famous people, no matter what time period they lived in, liked funny little things, that they had tragic things happen in their families that they could not control. He wondered about what he would say to them if he could have had a conversation with them, and what they might say to him. He wondered if Mr. Lincoln might have felt sad looking at him because he'd be reminded of his son Willy, who died when he was 11 and looks a bit like Casey in the photos that exist. He pondered that they seemed like regular people, and if these men had done amazing things, then maybe anybody could go and do amazing things and become famous. I'm not sure if it was a new notion, that ordinary real folks are the ones who go on and become famous, but I think the idea hit deep this time. And just today, Casey brought home his essay on Lincoln with an 'A' on it. Somehow I suspect that the conversational tone of his paper made it more fun and interesting for his teacher to read, too.

So we are going on, looking up and wondering when the balls will fall back to the ground, but meanwhile we're going on about the business of school and basketball games and gymnastics meets and other stuff. And we are really glad that we're not leading a fractured country in the middle of a bloody civil war, living in a big white house with polluted water that causes a terrible, tragic loss. Rest in peace, Mr. Lincoln, and thank you for trying your best to lead the country through a terrible time, being a good man and living your values as best you could under unthinkable conditions.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Luck and those damned Puritans

Solstice candles.
After Holidays. That weird sort of Twilight Zone period before you really resign yourself to knuckling back down to the everyday crazy routine again, while hanging on by the fingernails to that holiday let-it-go sort of mentality. I'm clinging to that with a headache the size of Minnesota and an impending feeling of Doom looming over my head because of all of the Big Things we need to face. Ring in a new year full of hope and joy. I do believe in a positive attitude, I do, I do...

I've been hard to live with lately. The fact that everyone has been spending Quality Holiday Time together, together, together probably doesn't help, since normally I need and like having some time alone just to myself. I get cranky and bitchy when I am crammed in together with people for too long at a stretch. And the fact that my body has been ailing hasn't helped either. It all makes me cranky.
I got really mad at Paul a few days back in the midst of an argument about time and money and energy and too much commitment and worry. I ended up totally losing it and I burst into angry frustrated tears (I hate when I do that) and told him he was so freakin' (okay, really, I said fucking) lucky and he didn't even get it. But what it really came down to was more 'You unappreciative bastard, your dad is still alive and you don't even know how lucky you are to still have him around, and you just take for granted that he's always going to be around to loan us money.' I think I spluttered something even less coherent at poor bewildered Paul (less coherent being an understatement) and I stormed out of the house to run away, go to the bank and deposit unexpected and wondrous Christmas gift money, spend a chunk of that money to fill up the tank on the van and roar around ineffectually in my frustrated rage at our stupid circumstances. Yeah, so there's some unresolved stuff there about good dads and money and loans and privilege and all that, I admit it. Why is family stuff is so painfully tied to money?

I've never really believed in luck, except maybe in a sort of 'luck favors the prepared' sort of way. I do believe that some people start out with better prospects than others, due to being born into better economic circumstances. And bad things just happen sometimes to people, like getting cancer. It just happens, it doesn't matter if you have lived a good life or bad or whether you deserve it or not. Nobody deserves cancer, or any number of other horrible diseases. Nobody deserves that bad luck, even if they threw their luck down the drain by smoking for thirty years.
Money luck, though, that's harder. Financial comfort just plain gives people better opportunities. If you're born into a family with money, you get better chances, better options, better health care, at least in this country. You get to go to better schools, better colleges, get a chance at a better-paying kind of job and a more comfortable life. They say money can't buy happiness. Which is bullshit, when you think about it. You can have a miserable life even if you're rich, sure, but odds are you're going to spend less time worrying about how to keep your house and feed your kids if you have money. Money sure as hell can buy chances for greater enjoyment and less stress and worry and despair. People who say that stupid line about money and happiness aren't the ones who can't feed their kids, or can't afford to get that medical procedure that might save their life or their child's life. Money does matter and while it isn't everything, it has a huge impact.

Puritan Work Ethic I was raised with: It's totally up to you to be sensible and careful, act in a responsible manner, and get a decent paying job. Pay your bills, pay your debts to society and pay the taxes you owe for the privilege of living in this society. The clear assumption is that if you just knuckle down and follow the rules and do everything you're supposed to do, you and yours will Do All Right. Pursuit of happiness comes dead last in that equation. If you were raised, like I was, with that Puritan Work Ethic, you were taught that we are masters of our own destinies, we must be self-reliant, we have the power to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, be self-made men (it's a whole other kettle of fish if you are female, but that's another entire rant). If we can't or don't succeed it's because we haven't applied ourselves and tried hard enough, been diligent and hard-working enough. If you fail to thrive, fail to make enough money, fail to raise splendid children, fail to have a fabulous career, then the fault is entirely yours, nobody else's. You are the only one to blame, you are at fault, you have Failed.

That Puritan work-ethic, what a merciless judge and jury. So much Guilt and Shame.

We all make choices as we move through our lives, and those choices about what career to work at, spend or save, what we choose to spend our hard-earned money on, how we choose to spend precious time; all those things don't feel like they fit into the 'luck' category so much. I chose to become an artist, which as my dad took many pains to tell me, would be a hard road to follow, not a good stable way to make a living. Paul chose to go into what he loved, making games. Not a safe career choice as it's always been a very volatile industry. We chose our pathways knowing it might be difficult to make decent money, but we decided to follow our hearts. 'You made your bed now sleep in it' has been ringing in my ears for decades now. So what's the point in whining about our financial circumstances now? It isn't like we didn't know the risks, after all.

"Follow your bliss and the money will follow". Heh. That usually works better if you have a stable financial platform to stand on while reaching for your dream. And it really helps to combine that with one or more other elements:
- a stable income from other sources
- a supportive partner who is whole-heartedly behind you and has a solid head for financial matters
- a solid and unrelenting drive and energy to work like crazy all the time combined with a single-minded determination to succeed in this one area
- the ability to say no to others' demands on your time, energy and  financial resources, especially extended family
- no kids

I realize that is a rather bass-ackwards, negative approach to the whole 'success in a creative field' idea. The positive flip-side I usually tell people who want to be successful as an artist is that there are three things you need:
- You have to be really good at your art
- You have to meet your deadlines
- You have to be easy to work with.
If you have even two of those three you will do all right.

The thing that isn't really covered in there, though, is that you must have confidence and the ability to sell yourself. If you lack the ability to sell yourself, it doesn't matter how wonderful your work is; your work won't even be out there available for people to see. You have to believe in yourself to sell your abilities to others. You have to want to get it out there, and you have to work damned hard to get it out there. If you lack that want or the drive to sell what you make, you fail.

And that is where I am right now.  How do you balance happiness and love with that need to pay the bills? What if you're tired and you just want to relax and sleep with the cat?