Space Can Never Be Too Large

I like space. I like things that are in space, and things that people send into space from our planet’s surface.

I like space agencies, both domestic and foreign. I like commercial space companies, new and old. Heck, this near-pacifist doesn’t even hold it (entirely) against the giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that they build all sorts of things designed to aid war and the harm of humans, because they also utilize their extensive capabilities and bank accounts to get people and things into space (and I’m not stupid, I know that weapons and deployment systems are necessary in our imperfect world, no matter how much I may hate that).

Space trumps almost everything, in my personal opinion. Exploration not only adds to our knowledge of the past and present, but is the key to our future. It goes beyond politics and current events or momentary needs and problems.

I also like the space community, a catch-all for people who are professionals in the industry and the space geeks like me who simply cheer them on. Most of my close friends come from this community and it’s the first one I’ve been part of where I genuinely enjoy socializing on a broader level. I’ve never been a big fan of large parties, but put me in a room with any number of strangers who share this love of space, and I will enjoy meeting and talking with pretty much everyone in that room.

“…Any chance to talk rockets, thrust, and issues
With someone who actually has an opinion
Even if we can’t find anything to agree on” – from Life of a Space Geek, by the author*

Now, as with any community, you’ll find various factions and cliques and fandoms (and geeks do excel at building fandoms, to be sure). These things naturally develop in social groups and since the development of what is known as New Space, there are more opportunities to build fandoms as well as more things to argue about. I know people who are staunch believers that only governments should be working on space exploration. I know people who think governments should get entirely out of the endeavor and leave it to corporations. I know die-hard fans of each company and government agency that has taken on the enormous take of getting people and things to space. I know people who think we should stop spending billions on human spaceflight and focus on purer scientific exploration, and people who barely realize there are planetary and pure science missions because they are so focused on human spaceflight.

I completely respect everyone’s right to their opinions and I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to the wide variety that are shared. Spirited debate is a very good thing.

But me? In the end, I just like space.

I look at space agencies and corporations and I see problems with every single one of them, some small and some major. The more I learn, the more I’m both disappointed and impressed. I also see that they are all working hard, in their own individual ways, to push exploration ever further. My favorite thing about New Space is that it added a whole lot more competition to the mix, which not only pushes each New Space company but puts pressure on more established companies to innovate. I’m thrilled that NASA can focus on getting humans further than ever before because the industry will soon be able to take over most of the goings-on in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), even if I have my own criticisms of each decision along the way. I’m even excited for companies formed to work on the possibility of mining in space, because that sort of technology not only applies to the fortunes of Earth, but will become vital to our chances to potentially move on from the planet that gave birth to our species. Money can also be an excellent motivator, and competition for it only increases the drive to succeed.

That said, I’ll admit I cried my eyes out the moment that STS-135 touched down, signaling the end of the shuttle program. What can I say? I’m just a fan of space and spacecraft and endings are sad even when they are ultimately for a greater good.

As someone who will never work in the industry itself, as I have no interest in working for a government and a lack of appropriate education for any position anyway, I have the privilege of standing back and watching the tales unfold. I can play armchair quarterback and spew my criticisms and praise without fear of it harming my career prospects. My only contributions to space are some quirky tunes like the one quoted above and an almost perverse obsession with talking about the subject with anyone who will give me a moment of their time, including strangers I happen to strike up a conversation with on the street or subway. Sometimes I also write prose about it and contribute to the podcast Talking Space. I study methods of space outreach for fun and to become more effective at it. I give out a lot of stickers and solar glasses to random people I meet. One of my favorite people at NASA, Jon Verville, once called me (and, yes, Jon – I heard what you said behind my back and I don’t think I’ve had the chance to thank you for it, so thanks), “The ultimate space cheerleader.” I’ll take it, because that’s the only involvement I aspire to.

The truth is, I don’t want to pick sides in any of these races. Once you go there it can be very hard to look objectively and critically at your favorite, or to see the good in the opposition.

I get it – people like to pick teams. I used to be a sports fan and still have deep loyalties to certain teams even though I rarely even look at scores for the major American leagues anymore. It seems to be part of human nature to pick factions, and we’re all just human.

Yesterday, NASA formally announced the two companies that have made it to the next round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contracts, Boeing and SpaceX, as well as the levels of funding for each contract, with Boeing receiving a much higher amount. In my opinion, the press conference wasn’t very informative beyond those facts and I’m awaiting more concrete information before I react strongly. Before the press conference there were a lot of rumors flying around, some accurate, many not-so-accurate, and the only real consensus seemed to be that Boeing would get one of the contracts. Despite that consensus, there was quite a bit of fury over that selection, particularly from those who prefer new industry over the traditional players, and, conversely, from those who feel that there is too much blind support for certain newer companies. I’m not saying that people were and are wrong to feel that way, because that would be ridiculous, but the level of anger from some people ultimately seems unproductive to the larger goals, especially when you consider that there isn’t much that any of us can do to change what has been decided and publicly announced.

I was immediately reminded of an exchange I had at the first SpaceUp Houston in 2011. A panel of representatives from commercial spaceflight companies was held on the Saturday evening of the weekend, followed by a concert by yours truly. As I was waiting to take the stage I was approached by a man from Boeing (apologies for not recalling his name, I even tried to look it up but couldn’t find the list of panelists). He was wondering, “Bake Sale for NASA, huh? So how do you feel about commercial spaceflight?” My response was simple and is still true, “I am a proud supporter of anyone who can get anything off this planet, especially people.” (N.B.: these are paraphrases, I have a good memory, but not that good).

So, go ahead and feel your feelings, support who you like, and share what you think. Please level your critiques of the process, especially if you are an American citizen whose tax dollars will go to these companies, as you also have the (rarely used enough by citizens) right to voice your opinions to your representatives in the federal government. I would never ask people to be quiet about any of this, debate and outrage and excitement are the tools that the layperson can wield.

I would just like to remind everyone that someday this will all be a blip in the annals of space history, and don’t let your anger or support for any particular player turn into blinders or, indeed, into personal anger at your fellow space geeks who might have different opinions. If human beings are going to continue this progress, those of us who love and support these endeavors need to not only keep up our enthusiasm but find ways to spread it around outside of the space community.

In the world outside of social media, it can be a very lonely thing to like space, and this global community has made everyone involved grow not just in knowledge, but in the confidence that helps us to more effectively stand up for what we believe in. If we don’t advocate relentlessly for space observation and exploration in all its forms, who will?

*Life of a Space Geek will be part of a forthcoming album that I’m about halfway through writing, about the last few years of the shuttle program and the people involved in it. Sorry there isn’t a recording to link to yet!

Random Musings on Sochi and Beyond

I love the Olympics.

Once upon a time, I played and watched a lot of sports. Participating is far more fun than watching, of course, but I enjoyed both. Then I became an adult and busy and I realized that watching sports was harming everything else in my life, between allowing my emotions to be affected by the performance of a bunch of strangers and the sheer time-suck of it all, a time-suck that continues to grow with things like Thursday Night Football and extended seasons and the fact that there are more 24/7 sports channels than news channels.

So I quit. I follow the scores of my favorite teams in a very casual way and am happy when they do well, but I ignore them when they don’t. If a game is on in the room I’m in, I might watch for a bit, but it’s usually while doing other things, too. It’s just not a focus anymore.

Except for the Olympics.

I compress every bit of my love of athletics into about a fortnight every other year. I do my best to watch everything, even the sports I’ve never been drawn to before (at least for final rounds). It’s impossible to watch it all, of course, but it’s fun to try! I set up my own private little sports bar during the overnight (here in Eastern Time) coverage, with TV, laptop, and tablet showing events while my phone lets me look up more information. I mostly gave up on sleep, working during the days with round robins being played out in the background, making sure my partner saw the best action in the evenings, and completely junking out overnight. It was absolutely worth it. Watching full events is the only way to truly enjoy the experience.

Why the Olympics? Well, despite all the corruption and politics that are absolutely worth ranting about, in the end, the Olympics are about the athletes. Many of them are in sports that get little support or even respect in the non-Olympic years, yet require even more dedication than the sports that pay millions. Many come from countries that simply can’t afford to support sports. Most have given up their childhood years entirely to pursue their dreams, and have outlasted talented people who just couldn’t take the sacrifice anymore. Just getting to the Olympics is a win, and medals are gravy for most of the competitors. It’s the only competition I can think of where coming in last place is winning, in a major way, because it means you will forever be in the great list of Olympians.

There is simply nothing else like it.

When American freestyle skier Heidi Kloser broke her femur and tore ligaments during a training run before the Sochi Games began her concern was, “Am I still an Olympian?” This sums up the importance of just being there. Watching her crutch her way through the Opening Ceremonies was both heartbreaking and inspiring. It was a reminder of just how dangerous and difficult these events are and the bravery and dedication of those who compete.

The best of the best make it look easy, most of the time. It’s quite the illusion!

Speaking of freestyle skiing, this particular Olympics was special for the inclusion of a dozen new events and a greater level of gender equality. Women’s ski jumping was probably the most important addition in Olympic history, it’s a travesty that it took this long and I’m looking forward to a day when women have just as many ski jumping events as the men (the women competed only in an individual Normal Hill event, the men have individual events in Normal Hill and Large Hill as well as team events in both and then the whole separate male-only Nordic Combined discipline that is made up of ski jumping and cross-country skiing). Meanwhile, all of the other new events were added for both men and women. Are things entirely fair and equal yet? No. Is this progress? Yes.

Those women really can fly!

Not only did Sochi include more events for women, it added the first mixed-gender events outside of figure skating/ice dancing to be held at the Winter Olympics. Biathlon, that wacky and shockingly fun-to-watch mix of cross-country skiing and shooting, included the first Mixed Relay event, with teams of 2 men and 2 women. Meanwhile, over at the Sanki Sliding Center, there was the first Team Relay in Luge, consisting of one run each by a solo man, solo woman, and a doubles team.

Granted, the equestrian events of the Summer Olympics remain the only sport with true parity (as men and women compete as true equals in that, both individually and in team events, the latter doesn’t have any rules as to gender make-up of a team, even), but there is just something wonderful about watching men and women work together in sports that used to divide them entirely. The addition of team events to what used to be only individual ones is also a great way to get people who normally compete to work together, which will elevate the performance level of their sports for the future much more quickly, I suspect.

Back to biathlon for a moment: Why doesn’t America have an amazing biathlon team? Really. Plenty of Americans cross-country ski and we own the most guns. Why are we not great at combining the two? We even have multiple courses left over from past Olympics to train on!

This Olympics was my favorite yet. One reason was NBC stepping up their coverage in many ways, there wasn’t even a need to watch the lame primetime coverage to catch any particular sport, since all were streamed live and many were broadcast live on NBC’s multitude of TV channels. The primetime coverage was more like a highlight show in this format. London 2012 was similar, but there are simply less events in the winter variation, and thus more sports made it to TV. The best part was the higher-quality commentary in these live broadcasts, showing that NBC’s B-team of commentators is far more talented than their A-team (when they used different teams for each, of course).

My personal Best Commentary award goes to the team of Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir, and Tara Lipinski. They made the primetime team look like fools. Figure skating was an exception to my normal sports rules this year largely due to this team covering the Grand Prix series and NBC should be applauded for having them do the full live coverage as well as the primetime gala. Weir is perfect for this role, he shares all sorts of interesting background (including what it feels like to jump, fall, train, and compete at this level), explains the scoring well, clarifies the things that often confuse the casual viewer, and does it all with humor and class. He’s the first commentator, to my knowledge at least, who competed under the current scoring system, and it makes his opinions and the details he points out far more informative than the former skaters who competed under the old rules. If NBC had not hired them, I would have watched the entire Olympics via the BBC instead. NBC should really just go ahead and make them the only figure skating team, it would vastly improve all coverage of the sport.

The inclusion of Vladimir Pozner as Russian expert was simply a great idea and I hope NBC is already lining up a Brazilian equivalent. He not only taught me a few things about Russia, but he inspired a few missions to learn more on my own!

NBC is famously awful at covering the Olympics and they own them until 2020, at least. The primetime coverage is biased towards not only American athletes (which makes some sense, of course) but the good-looking ones. I hate the effect this has on me, because I often find myself rooting against the athletes they anoint with high levels of coverage, just because I want NBC to lose. I’m working on my own part in that, but it would make the Olympics much more enjoyable if they just chilled on the opinions and extended fluff pieces and showed the sports as they happen.

The glory of the Olympics is that flukes happen. Sometimes they aren’t even flukes at all, they just seem that way because we’re exposed to distorted opinions and most of us don’t follow these sports. Favorites often lose. Athletes that have had tough seasons often suddenly perform at their best when they enter the Olympic arena. The Olympics are full of pressure and emotions that influence performance in even the toughest competitors. Julia Mancuso often gets shafted in favor of a certain blond competitor, but she comes alive on the Olympic slopes and is a joy to watch even when she doesn’t medal! Adelina Sotnikova has been the pride of Russia for years (and specifically groomed to win this year) but was displaced for a little over a month by her younger Russian peer and used her anger over it to give a brilliant performance and secure that gold medal. Mario Matt of Austria has been a great slalom competitor for years, with 14 World Cup titles under his belt, but had only finished as high as 34th in the Olympics before this one, when he became the oldest man to win a gold medal in alpine skiing. Meanwhile, talented racing snowboarder Vic Wild, who almost quit entirely due to a lack of support for his sport in his homeland of America (you know, the country that made snowboarding a thing?), showed how important it is to support our athletes by winning both his events for his adopted homeland of Russia, while the recently-rechristened Viktor Ahn did the same in short track skating with even more golds after leaving South Korea. Redemption is a beautiful thing!

Meanwhile, it seems that a major lesson of the men’s hockey tournament is that teamwork matters and all the talent in the world is not enough if you don’t know how to play well as a unit.

Frankly, if the favorites always won, why bother having Olympics at all?

To top it all off, I’m a huge fan of Russian arts, and the way they incorporated their vast and exceptional culture into the Games was simply beautiful. I’m showing some bias here, of course, but there is something special about a nation celebrating ballet and poetry on the largest of stages. Then there’s the wonderful choice they made in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies to highlight their space program’s accomplishments, even including the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, in the flag ceremony at the opening and naming the child characters in the closing after her and Yuri Gagarin. I have a ton of issues with Russia, especially regarding human rights, but I applaud them for celebrating truly the best they have given the world, from Tchaikovsky to exploration. Life is not black and white, and nations are not so simple to understand. This is one of the reasons we need the Olympics, it showcases both our similarities and differences, and how the politics and the people of a nation are not always easily related. As Pozner said near the end of the Closing Ceremony:

It’s a land that many, many people have had problems understanding, and then, it’s because of its really turbulent and strange at times history. But it’s an incredible country with an incredible history that has given the world enormous richness, and that’s the culture that we’ve been speaking about. It’s… it’s special. But then again, all countries are special, each in its own way.

Yes.

I can’t figure out how to close this, because I could write for hours more about just this Games, but must include a recommendation that you check out Cracked’s excellent piece on why boycotting the Olympics is always a bad idea.

Part of me is sad the Olympics have ended again, but part of me is sick of watching sports and ready for a year-and-a-half rest. My scheme is working perfectly!

Except I’ve decided to return to sports myself, not just fitness, but sports. I’m not sure how this will play out (decisions, decisions) and I know I’ll never be competitive in anything (I’m middle-aged now, after all), but those men and women sure made it all look like a lot of fun! In the end, isn’t that what all sports should be about?

8005 Days Later

I think about my mother most, if not all, days. In one month it will be the 22nd anniversary of her death by drunk taxi driver. That’s 8005 days so far. Probably on about 7500-7995 of those days my thoughts of her boil down to, “I wish I could ask Mom what she thinks about x…”

Then there are days like today, when the loss feels even more crushing than it did at the time, because it’s real now. It took about a year for me to process that she was really gone. We didn’t see each other much in those last years, both of us were far too busy, so it wasn’t strange to go for days without really crossing paths with her. It didn’t help that she didn’t look like herself in her coffin, either. Her head had been pretty much shattered or crushed in the accident and, while the mortician did a fantastic job of re-sculpting her face, it was even easier than in most cases to look right at it and be in complete denial. It was very important to some of our family to have an open casket, but that’s one of my few regrets, agreeing to that. I hate remembering that ruined head. It wasn’t hers.

Her head was where she lived. The thing that has always given me some measure of peace is the absolutely sincere conviction that she’d rather be dead than alive with a compromised brain. I would, too, and I will never be anywhere near as brilliant as she was.

Since she was killed in St. Maarten, it took a long time to get details of the accident and there are many I’ll never know, because I couldn’t be an advocate in any way, and advocates are often the only reason anyone tries to get to the truth. The police investigation was terribly bungled. We had to get a lawyer there to try to fight for us, but there was little he could do. The cops had let the driver go home, it took at least 15 minutes for them to test him for drugs and alcohol and, even though his levels of alcohol and cocaine were too high to make his story (the he had them after the accident) plausible, they just couldn’t prove he was drunk and high before they let him leave the scene.

For all I know, he’s still driving drunk and has hurt or killed others. I hope that is not the case. I hope he learned his lesson, that he remembers the day he took the life of a woman in her prime and came close to creating an orphan (my father managed to shock everyone by recovering, but it was touch-and-go for some time) and wants it to never, ever happen again. I don’t know who he is, so I will never know. I’d rather not know. I’d rather have hope.

I don’t understand how anyone can have even a drink and get behind the wheel. Once upon a time, sure, but since the 80s no one can claim ignorance about the effects of alcohol on your reflexes. I have a deep love of whiskey (and whisky), craft beers, good tequila, and fine cocktails. I’ve been tempted to have “just one” when I was the driver many times. But it’s not worth it. Nothing is worth it. Exactly one time I had a little champagne before I drove a very short way, and I still haven’t stopped beating myself up for it, 18 years later.

The way I see it, if one drink makes me feel even slightly more relaxed, then one drink is too many for driving. It’s a good lesson to get pounded in so deeply before getting a driver’s license.

Until the past few years, when my social life expanded globally thanks to social media, I could honestly say that most of the people I love are dead. That’s a strange thing to be true in your 20s and early 30s, at least, according to friends. The concept that anyone can get to adulthood without losing a whole lot of people is foreign to me.

Please don’t feel bad for me about this, it’s not necessarily a bad truth. Death is something we all have to deal with and you need to learn your own best methods for grieving. Experience is the only way to learn. My family didn’t ever spare me from attending wakes and funerals, even as a toddler, and I’m endlessly grateful for that decision. I could never have planned a funeral attended by hundreds at the age of 15 without having attended a few myself in the past. Planning her funeral was the best thing for me at the time, I learned that hard work and strategizing in times of trouble was my best way to cope, lessons that I have used in many situations since, like volunteering at Ground Zero and managing our “refugee” lives during Sandy. I learned that I could stand up to adults who wanted to treat me like a little kid and use their power to influence me or take me out of the equation, a very empowering thing for a teenager.

I think it’s also why I don’t fear death, and has a lot to do with my lack of faith in a higher power or afterlife. I hadn’t had faith in monotheism for a long time before my mother died, but if there was any chance I’d come back to it, it died with her. Immortality has no attraction for me. The brevity of life is exactly what makes it so exciting. Every single day matters. Thinking that you have more waiting for you after death (especially with all sorts of conditions on what that next life could be) can prevent you from living this life to the fullest. Heck, even if I’m wrong, and there is something more, why squander this life on that chance?

The only immortality that matters is the life that you live in the hearts and minds of those who cared about you and your work. I’ve run into some old students of my mother’s who were deeply affected by her, including kids who never expected to go to college before she came into their lives but did because she pushed them and are so glad. About 800 people turned up to her funeral. She was popular and beloved and I had no idea until the crowds packed our church. She earned it. She tirelessly worked to make the lives of everyone around her better. She made a lot of enemies along the way, too, but you have to in order to make a real difference, especially in the nasty field of public education. Even a lot of people who didn’t necessarily like her much showed up to honor her out of respect. It was amazing.

I really wish I could have understood any of this when she was alive. It’s pretty common to take your mother for granted, especially in adolescence. You can’t really know who your parents are until you are an adult, you can’t understand their jobs and lives from the perspective of childhood. Now that I understand my mother better as a whole person, I just wish I could talk to her about it all. I wish I could ask her opinion of current events, especially in education. I really, really wish that I could discuss her scholarly work from her PhD days and hear more about her early travels, and tell her that her dissertation is now considered a serious academic source cited by many scholars in recent years. That would make her so happy!

Ah, well. Nothing that can be done. But this is why I have days where the wounds still feel very fresh, even after 8005 of them.

I’d be a different person if my mother was still around. I would have had far less control of my own decisions through my young adult years, she was pretty controlling in some ways and would be very upset with some aspects of my life. I would have been more protected through those years as well, and that is not an appealing idea at all. Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to my mother being gone.

Other losses are much simpler to process, I just flat-out miss the people and their presence in my life and I grieve for them without holding back. With my mother, it’s very complicated. Most of my life has been pretty amazing, and I’m pretty sure I’d have missed out on most of my best adventures if she had been around. But I would have had other adventures and experiences, and who knows how cool they could have been? Not worth dwelling on. There are no answers. I’m 99.9999% sure that I would never have met the love of my life, which is the ultimate reason to be glad things worked out as they did, no matter how difficult.

Most days, I let these conflicted thoughts help me cope and the happy memories and gratitude over having the mother I did are the raft I float on.

Today is just not one of those days.

But, I’m not sharing this to make anyone sad. I’m sorry if I have. The thing is, you may miss someone forever and there will be rough days, but if you allow yourself to feel all the feelings, it does get better. The days I miss my mother the most are also the days her memory inspires me to fight the good fights, share experiences, and appreciate what little time I have with everyone I care about.

If you find yourself thinking about my mom’s story the next time you have a choice about drinking and driving and let it influence your choice, this is all worth sharing just for that.

If you find yourself taking the people you care about a little less for granted today, even better.

But the best thing of all would be if you take this as a wake-up call to follow your passions, then you really get the point. You could be dead tomorrow. What are you going to do with today?

Just Don’t Go

I’ve received a few emails over the past month about petitions to stop the big box stores from opening on Thanksgiving. I heartily support these people who created these petitions, workers who are forced to skip what is supposed to be a national holiday, a national day of rest and food and family. THE American holiday. Lots of nations have Independence Days, only one that I know of (Canada) has a Thanksgiving besides us (please correct me in the comments if I have that wrong, I have too much baking to do today to do a bunch of research).

“National holiday” is a phrase that has lost all meaning. Nobody cares about veterans, or laborers, or anyone involved in making this country great anymore. No, people care about how much they can save on a mattress, a new TV, or their holiday gifts. People care more about what makes this country suck – greed. Pure greed and a complete lack of compassion. All to prepare for a holiday that’s supposed to be about celebrating the birth of a man who preached against materialism and taught that compassion for the poor is the highest quality a human being can have.

Employees have no choice. Many would lose their jobs instantly if they refused to work on the holiday. The people who need a day off far more than most of us have to work.

Have you ever worked on your feet? Worked retail on a major shopping day? It’s exhausting. Holidays are often the only days that lower-income workers even get off, in this world of working 2 or 3 jobs and still making so little that food stamps are the only way to make ends meet.

That’s why we need national holidays, for the least of us who have the least to have a day off to rest their weary feet, catch up with family, and maybe have a nice meal with the people they love.

So, what can you do? Don’t go. Don’t support any store that is open on Thursday during this Christmas season and write them to tell them why you won’t be shopping there, maybe even include what your budget would be at that store if you weren’t boycotting. Skip Black Friday at the stores that open at midnight or 6 am or whatever completely ridiculous hour wrecks any Thursday plans for employees. Participate in Small Business Saturday and support your neighbors. Shop online! That will save you money, time, hassle, and maybe even a black eye. If you have geeks on your list, I recommend ThinkGeek because they are good people who run a good business (I do ALL of my Christmas shopping there every year, including for the non-geeks on my list, because they really do have something for everyone and the best customer service in the sector) and I have never seen evidence they treat employees with less than full respect.*

Even if you don’t care at all about the plight of retail workers (and I’m sure some of you don’t), then be selfish. Don’t let Wal-Mart, Target, or any other store ruin YOUR holiday. The sales may be tempting, but is your time really so low in value that you’d rather spend hours of misery shopping than spend a few dollars more? The only thing that will make them change these horrendous practices is a hit to the bottom line.

My Christmas budget this year is non-existent, but even my time is too valuable to justify shopping these sales. The friends-turned-family that I spend my Turkey Day with and our long-held traditions are even more valuable. Priceless, actually. I also know that they would rather that I get them no gifts than leave in the middle of our festivities for something as stupid as waiting in long lines.

I would have to question whether I actually like or respect a person who would leave a holiday to shop, even. It’s a sign that person’s priorities are completely screwed up.

Avoiding these stores is the compassionate thing to do, the humanist thing to do, the Christian thing to do. Whatever your faith or philosophy, unless you are the sort for whom monetary greed IS a religion, there is no way to justify hurting people in the name of saving what amounts to not really that much money.

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgivukkah this year! Two fun-as-can-be holidays, come together. This is definitely not the year to skip the holiday! Dreidels and turkey! Gelt and pumpkin pie! Latkes and sweet potato casserole! I hear the next one is in 80,000 years so we better make this one count!

Sing songs, argue about politics and childhood memories, eat until you can’t waddle, and bask in the glow of a precious day off. Bring back the magic of the unofficial start of the holidays and soak every bit of love up while you sop up leftover gravy with a freshly-baked roll. And then get a good night of turkey-induced sleep and enjoy your day off on Friday if you are lucky enough to have it off.

Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time to make the pastry for 3 types of pie… Priorities!

*Full disclosure: I have won a few ThinkGeek items at events, but they have never sent me merchandise to review, paid me in any way other than GeekPoints (which everyone gets), or otherwise asked me to mention them in any way. I’m just a fan and customer.

4 Years On

4 years ago today I was a space geek who had never been to any NASA center or seen any full-sized heading-away-from-Earth rocket launch. I’d yet to meet most of the friends I’d made via Twitter but was already feeling the positive effects of knowing people who shared a lot of interests with me. I’d just arrived in Florida for Thanksgiving. Atlantis was in the midst of her STS-129 mission and the first NASA launch tweetup had been held for that mission’s launch just about a week earlier. I had plans to make my first visit to Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing later that week, but was enjoying relaxing by my father’s pool with my family in the meantime.

A few months earlier I’d been watching the Augustine Commission hearings on human spaceflight while reading about lesser-known NASA projects that had resulted in excellent improvements to life on Earth, such as agricultural programs that have prevented a lot of starvation but are never hyped. I saw a joke on Twitter about how NASA was going to have to resort to bake sales if they wanted a decent budget and the idea captured my imagination. Visions of rocket-shaped cookies and moon pies danced in my head.

I turned to my computer as C-SPAN blared away in the background and found myself typing:

We sent men to the moon because of some lines

In a speech that inspires to this day

We learn more about Earth from orbit

Than we can in any other way

Yet we spend and we spend and we spend and we spend

On corporate welfare that will never end

Programs that waste more than they create

Yet we’re happy to let NASA deflate

So let’s hold a bake sale for NASA

Show our love for a program that actually works

The cookies are sure to be out of this world

We could even has astros as clerks

Give folks a chance to learn first-hand

Why we need these adventures in space

How it affects them directly at home

And elevates the whole human race

Yes, they just came out that way, no editing required. I picked up my guitar and the chords to complement my new melody just came together right away. As soon as I had a solid pattern going on guitar, the rest of the lyrics just flowed out. Later, I did a bunch of research to confirm my facts and was pleased to find that my statements were pretty accurate.

I wasn’t a musician, I didn’t want to be and had made that decision years earlier. I can’t help writing songs by the dozen, but I was way over-the-hill for a female musician already (33 years old at the time, over-the-hill is usually age 28 for women) and had spent enough time on the road to know it was a hard life with little chance to make a living or maintain the other parts of your life (paying jobs, relationships, etc.). But this song was special. This one had to be heard. It had an important message that wasn’t getting to people and there was no way I’d be getting someone else to perform something so quirky. My friend Stephen Bailey practically ordered me to play it at an open mic before I’d even memorized it, after I showed him my lyric sheet. It got the biggest response I’d ever received from the audience. I’d tweeted about the title and people wanted to hear it. When I published the lyrics online the clamor grew.

My background is in audio engineering but I strongly believe that a musician should not be her/his own engineer and producer if possible, especially for someone like me who writes in a vacuum, without collaborators. It’s easy to get tunnel-visioned about your own music and a fresh perspective is key to making a good song great. Dave Entwistle, a new friend I’d made through his open mic nights, was also an engineer who had been through some terrible music business experiences that gave him recording sensibilities very similar to mine. It was a perfect match. We recorded it over a couple of days and had a blast doing it, the best recording session I’d ever been part of. He elevated the song and my performance in a way that felt more like magic than effort and brought my vision to life.

Most of life requires a lot of hard work. This song never did. Everything just kept coming together.

I joined TuneCore and set the song up to release as a single while packing for Florida. The site said it could take 2-3 weeks to get it to the stores (that time has shrunk over the years) so I sort of pushed it out of my head and took off for the airport.

4 years ago today I got a tweet from @txflygirl saying that she’d just bought “Bake Sale for NASA” at Amazon. It had only been one day and it was up! Next thing I knew, I was on the Amazon charts just above Carly Simon, not in a high position but on the list and climbing. It was the biggest shock of my life. No promotion, no record label, I hadn’t done any of the things I knew I should do to spread the word. It was selling anyway.

Walking onto KSC grounds as an accidental musician with a song about NASA was quite the experience. I’ve never felt so proud. I got to meet Jen and Andy Scheer for the first time, Jen had done the beautiful cover for the song and it was just perfect that we’d already planned to meet that day. I had no idea how all of these things would change my life forever.

We make plans, we set goals, we try so hard to control our lives. It never works. The great things happen when you least expect them and weren’t looking at all.

To date, I’ve been to 3 NASA centers and their headquarters in DC, I saw four of the last five shuttle launches and three of the last five landings, I spent a day at the European Astronaut Training Center in Cologne, I’ve gotten to perform at some of the best events I’ve even been to, and I’ve met amazing people from all over the world who are so smart, funny, and interesting that I still have trouble believing they exist. I may not have full access to that part of my life right now, but the memories are priceless and I can’t wait to get back to traveling again someday.

There even was an actual bake sale for NASA, not to raise money for NASA (that would be illegal) but to raise awareness and support for planetary sciences, created by Alan Stern. My song didn’t inspire it, but it did inspire participants and helped spread the word. That was thrilling for this huge fan of planetary science and unmanned missions. “Bake Sale” might focus on human spaceflight a bit, but it is really about growing all exploration programs, whether they are pointed out at the universe or back home, because all of the pieces to this puzzle are very important to our understanding of the universe we live in.

I wanted to do something special today, like maybe a broadcast of a new live version, but my mouth rebelled and half of it is swollen to where it feels like I have an Everlasting Gobstopper stuck between my molars. I have to go to the dentist and its filling me with so much dread that I’m nauseated and unsuccessfully trying to get work done and probably shouldn’t even be writing this. How do you let the anniversary of the best thing that’s ever happened in your life pass by without notice, though?

A lot of musicians get frustrated when people obsess over one of their songs. Some react by refusing to play their big hit, some play it without putting any heart or soul into it, and still others just rush through the song as quickly as they can (such as Blues Traveler, who managed to play “Runaround” with such speed that you could barely even attempt to sing along after it became a hit). It’s demoralizing and can even be a creativity-killer. Why be creative if your audience only cares about one song? Or will walk out if you play something new, even if it is a far better song, just because it’s new? Or will get angry at you for trying to improve your performance and branch out in new directions?

Playing the same song night after night is boring. I get it.

But I still love playing “Bake Sale” every bit as much as I did at that open mic where it was debuted. Even when I’m home alone rehearsing I can close my eyes and see hundreds of special people in a host of special places, singing and clapping along. I can hear the ghost of an audience chanting, “NASA! NASA! NASA!” like they did at a local pub that was decidedly not full of space geeks. If I ever start playing out again, feel free to request it. I won’t get upset.

“Bake Sale” is the closest thing I will ever have to a first-born. It was far from my first song, but it was the song that broke me out of the prison I’d built around myself. It was the first baby I’d sent out in the world and it managed to survive on its own. I’m a proud momma.

I wish there was a way to thank every single person who has purchased any of my music, shared the links to my music at various sites, written about my songs, invited me to play an event, came to the Endless BBQs and Yuri’s Nights and similar, supported my adventures, and paid insane amounts of money above the list price for Above the Sky at Bandcamp. Every one of you will be in my heart forever, even if I don’t know who you are.

Okay, time to conquer my fear of dentists, just like “Bake Sale” forced me to conquer my stage fright.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about how you discovered “Bake Sale” in the comments and if you have any special memories attached to it. I’ve heard quite a few from people but it would be fun to consolidate them and maybe even hear some new ones!

I May Be Broken, But That’s Why Troubleshooting Exists

My life changed again yesterday. When I wrote “Broken” I was at the highest stress level I’ve felt in years. Wit’s end, really. I hadn’t been online in weeks (well, the interactive sort of online, I’ll never stop reading certain blogs), I had been trying to hide my emotions from the few people I have been in contact with (especially the one I live with), and I couldn’t see any hint of light in either direction from the tunnel I’d dug.

Within minutes of posting I got a whole slew of leads, great advice, the sympathy that I didn’t want but actually felt like support instead of pity, sold some music, found out that some people really dug my Christmas concert last year, and was reminded of how quickly confusion can lead to clarity if you just talk to people who care and really listen to their responses. I even managed to pay my rent for this month!

The thing is, since I joined Twitter and started making friends through it, this has been a repeated experience in many ways. When I thought I couldn’t make it to the STS-133 NASA Tweetup people rallied to get me there, for example. I wound up helping other people get there, too, and without a hint of reservation or feeling put-out. Why do I struggle accept this new paradigm?

When I was a child and a friend hurt me, the first time I was outright stabbed in the back by someone I trusted, my dad sat me down and explained that you have to be careful with your trust and choose friends wisely. He said that if you have a single true friend in life you are exceptionally lucky. He’s right. That is generally the case. I was an oddball kid and there were people who took advantage of my generous nature and desperate need to find connections. I stayed in relationships that were not healthy because I didn’t want to hurt people in the way I had been hurt. I became an even more oddball adult. I learned a lot of strategies to try to protect myself, from healthy wariness to outright behaving as poorly as those around me. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t really understand friendship back then and I acted in ways that the society I was raised in taught me – attack before you get attacked. Not that I didn’t have any good people in my life, I always have, but they’ve been outliers rather than the majority. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out who is good for you and who is not. Most of us have to learn this the hard way, right?

There was one person in particular who seemed like a very good friend. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years, have experienced a lot of the Big Life Moments together, and had a lot of fun back in the day. We had a lot in common. We also had a lot of issues and, over the years, I’ve realized that she was not very good for me (to put it mildly) multiple times and sought to end the relationship. Yet I always went back. After one of our most recent phone calls I realized that it was at least the 3rd time in a row that I cried after we had been talking. I thought over everything she said and it all fell into two basic categories: 1) All about her, even if the subject had nothing to do with her personal life (brilliantly demonstrated by Howard Wolowitz managing to turn every conversation into one about his trip to space, even when the subject was lemons, on The Big Bang Theory); 2) Telling me how much everyone but her thinks I suck in every way, but how wrong all of them are and how wonderful she thinks I am. Even worse, I realized it had been this way the whole time we’d known each other. Still worse, I realized that this was exactly the same sort of psychological abuse that I rail against when it’s men hurting their female partners. Every time I hung up the phone or came home from seeing her I felt worthless, utterly worthless. She was clearly trying to isolate me, make my orbit revolve around her. I’m pretty sure she didn’t do this on purpose, I think she has her own serious problems and I became the person who bore the brunt of her problems. I stayed on her team because I was worried about her problems. I didn’t want to give up, because one of my goals in life is to be a very good, compassionate person. I don’t always succeed, but I will never stop trying. At some point, though, the benefit of the doubt has to run out when someone is actively attacking you, whether they mean to or not.

Last year, when I was lamenting not being able to volunteer to help other victims of Sandy because I had to meet with FEMA and insurance folks, figure out where we were going to live until our home was livable again (not to mention organize multiple moves), and basically spend hours just getting our most basic needs taken care of, someone reminded me that I was a victim needing help, and only when my own needs were met could I be of useful aid to anyone else. It was funny, because I’ve given that same advice hundreds of times and yet, here I was, needing to hear it from someone else. We’re strange creatures that way. Sometimes the most obvious things DO need to be pointed out. I hung up the phone on my old friend one day and used the term “victim” in my head for the first time.

People often think that looking at yourself as a victim is bad. I see it all the time. “Don’t be a victim, be a survivor.” “Stop playing the victim card.” “Your victim mentality is hurting you more than the crime.” Sure, if you blame anyone/everyone else for all of your problems, it can get unhealthy quickly. But, and this is a huge BUT, until you recognize that you are a victim of a specific situation, you can’t take the actions that might fix the problem at hand and prevent a repeat occurrence. I stayed in unhealthy friendships for years, simply by refusing to acknowledge my victimhood, and it distorted my view of people in general. That acknowledgment gave me the tools to extract myself from a bad situation, and empowered me to take a hard look at all of my relationships and see which were fulfilling and which were damaging. You have to be a victim before you can grow into a survivor and there is nothing wrong or embarrassing about that.

So, when I got such an overwhelmingly positive response to my post yesterday, it caught me off-guard. I haven’t posted here in so long I figured maybe 10 people would even read the piece. Within an hour or so 6 times that many people had read it and it was still spreading. It was retweeted like crazy, by smart people who are influencers in the worlds I like to live in. I haven’t been on Facebook yet (it really takes all of my patience and positivity to survive looking at Facebook) but I did get notifications that it was shared there as well. I got messages from people I haven’t communicated with in years. I got messages from people in the same situation, grateful that someone expressed the frustrations they haven’t been able to share. Most of all, I got messages that cut to the heart of my problems and gave me the perspectives I needed from people who clearly know me a whole lot better than I had realized.

One of my favorite people on (and frequently above) this planet, Tim Bailey (go follow him if you use Twitter and don’t have him in your stream yet, he tweets mainly about space but also about living a positive life in such a refreshing way), told me a long time ago that my biggest problem is that I stubbornly refuse to ask for help. He’s right. He figured it out when he barely knew me. Come to think of it, the first time we met he did me a giant favor that I was reluctant to ask for. That’s the thing about real friends, they tell it like it is and make you a better person through such honesty. They don’t degrade you to manipulate, but they don’t sugar-coat things that are true. They give you perspective. None of us is perfect but a true friend will help you reach for your goals or just figure out what those goals should be.

Note to self: I really should call Tim. Why does my brain keep me from picking up a phone?

A lot of people tell me I’m brave because I share some of my darkest thoughts here. It would be far braver to pick up a phone and tell any of my friends, “I need you right now.” It would be far braver to admit that my life has changed, that the people who were aiming to hurt me are out of my little corner of the universe, that I know how to read warning signs better, that I don’t have to face life alone, that I have deep and meaningful relationships outside of my family, that the love I feel for people and that I feel is returned is not just a construct of my overactive imagination.

Making myself publicly vulnerable is the reason that I need to stop writing this and finish an estimate for a project I am beyond excited to work on as well as polish up the new resume and portfolios I’m creating with the great advice from people who know a whole lot more than I do about finding work, for the people who requested them. Confidence should ideally come from inside, but I defy anyone who claims that their confidence is not at all affected by outside reactions, especially anyone creative. When the same people who are willing to point out your flaws in a constructive way also point out your neglected talents, it’s a lot easier to believe those talents are real and deserve renewed attention. Isolation is a great environment for questioning everything and finding uncertainty all around you.

In a couple of weeks it will be the 4th anniversary of the release of “Bake Sale for NASA“, another life-changing moment for me and the catalyst that led to most of the positive elements of my life today. I never really wanted to be a musician as a vocation and I never tried the way I probably should have. Most of my life can be summed up that way, I let life happen to me. That was fine when I was younger, it led me down paths I would never have sought and taught me lessons I would never want to give up. I think I’m finally ready to pursue life with full vigor.

All because of a little help from my friends.

Drat, now I’m going to have The Beatles in my head for the rest of the day…

Broken

I kind of want to die. Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal or planning to take any risks (above the risks that we all take by eating and walking around and using the bathroom and such). I just can’t see a way out of being such a burden to people right now and be alive. I know, rationally, this is incredibly stupid, and these same people would be miserable if I was gone. I despise this feeling that I’m a vortex that sucks everything good out of the people around me.

I’ve been job hunting for a few years now and it’s the most demoralizing experience. Worse, it’s my fault that I’m difficult to hire. I have a very weird work history, not the kind that screams “reliable!” It’s probably hard for anyone in HR to parse out what my skills really are, especially as a lot of my skills are difficult to get into a resume and absolutely impossible to get onto a job application. I don’t have good excuses for gaps, I’m not a mother who took time off to raise kids (and we all know that returning to the workforce after that break is difficult at best) or someone who took time off to go to school. I prefer working for small businesses and that leads to a lot of instability. I took opportunities to travel when I could instead of getting some crappy job just to make sure these gaps didn’t occur. I don’t regret those choices at all, my life has been extraordinarily full of wonder and love and excitement. Unfortunately, it left me in a really bad place financially. I took things a little too far. I can’t change that.

People don’t understand broke. College kids always talk about being broke, but it’s a sort of broke that usually includes a roof over your head and access to cafeterias and no worries about how you will survive the next month (I said “usually”, there are certainly truly struggling students as well). That’s not broke. That’s not having enough fun money. Broke is worrying about being evicted and homeless, 24/7. Broke is realizing you can’t renew your driver’s license because of the fees, which then cuts down on the jobs you can apply for. Broke is your clothes falling apart yet still being worn because holey clothes are better than no clothes. For many people, broke is starvation. I’m lucky on that last part, my partner keeps us stocked with food, but then I feel terribly guilty eating it except for the one meal we share each day. This is bad, because on my best days I’m incapable of consuming the amount of calories I should to maintain my weight. Guilt is an appetite-killer for me as well.

I know why people don’t understand, because I really didn’t either. I remember friends telling me they were too broke to grab a pint and thinking, “That’s just $5 or so… Anyone can afford $5.” I can’t. I get it now and I apologize for dismissing anyone’s reality so cavalierly, I truly did not understand. I also spent years offering to pay for friends to come out and do things with me, and genuinely did not consider taking a friend out for a night a burden at all. So why do I feel so rotten every time a friend takes me out? Or buys me a gift? Actually, I didn’t feel bad until recently because I was sure that something would work out and I could reciprocate soon. That last bit of hope is long gone.

I haven’t even tried to do anything on the music front because I can’t support other musicians, the bars that still have original music, or the community as a whole right now. I believe in supporting those who support you and don’t like one-way streets at all. Between some serious personal problems and Sandy I lost my way in music and I don’t know how to find a new path at this moment.

The insane thing is that my preferred jobs right now would be the crap that most people supposedly don’t want. Well, ideally I’d work from home, but that’s an insanely high goal right now. I’d rather work nights if possible, and that means things like waitressing, bartending, and even retail are fine by me. I’m applying for lots of day jobs, too, but it’s very strange to now live in a world where the “crappy” jobs are extremely competitive. I don’t have 2 years’ experience waitressing, I just don’t, and I can’t magically have that. I haven’t worked in a retail store since I was in high school and that was only a temporary holiday job. It’s one thing to hear about how bad the job market is, it’s another thing to live it.

I’d be an awesome bartender. I know how to make a slew of tasty cocktails, pour a perfect pint of Guinness (a skill that very few in America have), and I’m basically an amateur psychologist anyway to both friends and strangers. I’m good-looking, too, not beautiful but charmingly petite in a way that disarms people and gets them to open up their wallets. That shouldn’t be a consideration, but I know that there aren’t too many bartenders around here who aren’t fairly good-looking, so it’s a bonus trait at the very least. I just don’t have professional experience. How the hell does someone start bartending? I haven’t a clue. Oddly, neither do the bartenders I’ve gone to for advice, except one said the path is though bar back. No one is going to hire a 5′ tall woman who weighs under 100 pounds as a bar back anyway.

If I was alone I could bear even the worst consequences, but I don’t live in a vacuum. I live with a man who deserves someone way better than me in every way. I’m terrified that I’m ruining his life and he’d be better off without me in the long run. He has never given me a reason to feel this way, this is all my take on things. He’s amazing and I’m ridiculously lucky in this area.

I’m definitely ruining friendships. The rare instances when I’ve made it out I’ve become this shrill person that I can’t stand to be around, let alone expose others to. Stress is changing my external personality. So, as I do, I retreat into my hole, turn off my notifications on social media and “fun” email, and just escape the world. Again, I know this is really freaking stupid but I’m just not pleasant to be around or talk to right now. I don’t want to catch anyone else in my web of misery and fear and trying to act like things are okay is exhausting.

The worst thing of all is that I’m not living up to any of my ideals. My life plan never included marriage because I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. Turns out that you don’t need that piece of paper to feel dependent. Who knew? I never really had a specific career in mind but I sure thought that I’d have one by now. I did have one, once. I don’t miss that career but I miss the drive that created. I don’t do well without a goal to strive for, it’s just the way I’m wired.

The irony is that I work very hard, I’ve been designing web sites that I’m exceptionally proud of, especially the Danger Comics site. I tend to work better to deadline than I do to hours and I’ve fallen madly in love with working on these sites. My clients are an absolute delight to work with, creative geniuses who also happen to be the truest of friends. They just don’t pay enough to make a dent in my expenses. It’s okay, I offered to do these sites for low-cost because I hadn’t designed a site in years and I know what my clients can afford. I’d rather have some work than none, and I’d rather support people I admire than let their work suffer due to a lack of a good tech person. I stand by those choices and really have learned a lot that I didn’t know a year ago in the process. I’ve gained confidence as a designer and that’s priceless. I’m just not sure how I can expand on this in a way that will get me cold, hard cash in the quantities that life in the NYC metro area requires.

I’ve taken some advantage of this time in super-positive ways, too. I’ve finally started learning to play guitar, really play, not just strum some basic chords as I’ve been doing for the past 22 years. I’ve almost doubled my singing range in the past year. I’ve developed a great workout routine that has me feeling (and looking) great. I’ve been sort of giving myself a full makeover, inside and out, trying to stave off overwhelming depression and create something good out of adversity. My face (which has been covered in acne and psoriasis for the past couple of years, plus the beginnings of lines and wrinkling) is starting to clear up because I’ve made a point of taking better care of it. I’ve learned to apply makeup well and play the feminine game better (I may hate the game, but I still have to live with it and want any advantage I can get). The last two will fall apart if I can’t replace my dwindling products soon, but I’m really glad I’ve gotten this far. I taught myself to sew to finish off my Halloween costume and hope to learn more so I can eventually make my own clothing. I’ve been doing exercises to improve my brain as well and can feel them making a real difference. I’m working on my first novel and writing songs that I’m exceptionally proud of. In many ways, I am at my peak right now.

Some peak.

I keep having to remind myself that I have things to offer the world. I know how to do many, many things and they were almost all self-taught. I’m great with lots of pro-level software, from ProTools to almost everything Adobe makes with many stops in-between. I taught myself web design 3 times over at different points in tech history, using various technologies and languages from hand-coded HTML back in the day to fully-customized WordPress sites now. I’ve played both team and solo sports, which taught me how to be very competitive myself without forgetting to play nice with and support others. I’ve organized great events of various kinds from tiny to huge. I’ve made mistakes (who hasn’t?), but I’m a very determined person, and I will work on something until it is as flawless as the time frame allows, even if that means learning something entirely new to me to accomplish. At my one big corporate job I regularly fixed the tech issues that our IT department couldn’t or wouldn’t fix at the request of superiors, even though it was not even vaguely in my job description. I hate down time at work and will always try to find something productive to do before I’d consider, say, watching YouTube videos or browsing social media unless I’m seriously overworked and tired. I’m at my happiest when embroiled in a project. I live by Tim Gunn’s motto, “Make it work!” These are special qualities, in my humble opinion. I’ve seen how many people who make good money spend the whole workday posting to Facebook and Twitter…

But how do you get any of that in a resume or application? And if you could, it kind of looks like something trite you’d say to get the job, not the truth that it is. Remember in the 80s when the big buzz phrase was, “I’m a people person!”? It became a joke even though being a “people person” is key to succeeding in many arenas.

I’ve never been invited for an in-person interview without getting the job offer. I just can’t get in the door anymore. I’m willing to do anything but take my clothes off (which I’m kind of old for anyway, no matter how young I look), as long as it won’t kill my back (basically, as long as I don’t spend all of the day lifting very heavy boxes, but I can do some with no problem. UPS is out but retail stocking would be okay, for example). Friends who have offered to hook me up with jobs live at least 3 hours away, and I can’t relocate. I live right next door to one of the greatest cities in the world, a city known for being full of opportunity, and it just seems to have no place for a clever, creative, hard-working, unusual gal like me. Granted, I would much rather work on this side of the river, but I’m not silly enough to hold out for that possibility.

I have a few really good business ideas as well, but after trying to be a solo entrepreneur I’m aware that I need a partner, not just to complement my skill set (which does have gaps, as everyone’s does) but because collaboration is the only way to stave off tunnel vision and have a good sounding board. I don’t know how to find one on purpose, my former partners were all involved from conception. Also, you do need a little seed money and credit for any new business, even if it is a very little bit, and I’m tapped out in every way. I’m not embarrassed to say that I would need help to get something new off the ground, it’s actually a mark of how much I have grown since my early endeavors. Life is a marvelous teacher if you listen to the clues it provides!

I don’t want to be a part of this world if I can’t contribute to it. I don’t want to drag down the people I love. I don’t want charity or a handout. I just want to work. I just want to pay my damn rent on time again. I think that’s how the vast majority of people feel and right now there are millions of people in my country alone who probably could write large parts of this piece. I wish that was comforting knowledge but it just makes me sad and angry.

As I prepare to sell everything that means anything to me in an attempt to keep our home, things that are utterly irreplaceable, I am astounded at how little it all amounts to. What’s priceless to me is cheap to the rest of the world, even things that cost a lot when they were new. It feels like a metaphor for my own value.

I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I need to get this stuff off my chest for myself, but I also find that people really need education on what it is like to be unemployed. It’s so easy to claim that those without jobs are lazy, but that is the rare exception. The more I talk to people in similar situations the more I see how innate our desire to contribute is. The entire reason the human race has succeeded is our social predilection, it allowed us to develop these big brains instead of, say, getting faster or physically stronger than all the other animals. We get satisfaction from participating in our tribe, and the modern form of that is being part of the active workforce, our equivalent of being a hunter and/or gatherer. It’s the most natural thing in the world to value yourself by your contributions to society.

There are far worse fates than death.

Dear Charity

Dear charity,

I believe in your cause. I really do. That is why I gave you money. I understood at the time that this would open me up to receiving requests for more money, after all, I did willingly give you my contact information. I am proud to have given you money. I don’t have a lot, but when I have a little something to give, I give. I’m very interested in what you are doing and appreciate the occasional update or news alert. It makes me feel like that bit of money is getting together with everyone else’s to do something positive and sometimes the news you send me might not reach my eyes otherwise. Being informed is a good thing.

The problem is, nothing with you is occasional.

At least you’ve given up on the snail mail. Not too long ago you provided my shredder with a whole lot of munchies. Snail mail costs and I have had experience at bulk mailing, it takes a lot of work to properly prepare everything and that takes manpower. To add to the insanity, you sent every piece of mail to both me and my partner, which means that I had to spend a bunch of time shredding two pieces of mail (if you add it up over the years, of course) that someone in your office spent a lot of time creating. You’ve probably spent at least as much money mailing me requests for more money as I spent giving to you. The fact that you came to your senses and dropped the mailings is a very good thing.

Unfortunately, this leaves email. Email is good, it costs nothing to send and takes less work than any bulk mailing ever has. The problem is, this ease and convenience means that you seem to think that flooding my inbox is a good idea that might convince me to give you more money. I don’t think there has ever been a whole week where you have not sent me an email. In fact, I’d be shocked if there’s ever been a week with as few as one. Morning after morning, I see your name there. I’d like to open them, since they might contain some piece of information I’d like to have. The trouble is, if I do open it, the most likely content is a rehash of things you have already told me followed by all the reasons I need to give more now, RIGHT NOW, because, you know, it is a CRUCIAL MOMENT and that means MORE MONEY is needed for the FINAL PUSH. Those phrases lose their EMPHASIS when you REPEAT them MULTIPLE TIMES per WEEK. It becomes less and less likely that any individual piece of mail will have new information. Since I have nothing to give right now, I just wind up annoyed and guilty. And guilty about feeling annoyed. Because I really do believe in your cause and want to support it. I really do.

What happens the next time I have a little money to give? It goes to someone else. Just because I believe in your cause doesn’t mean that there aren’t others that deserve my time, money, and attention just as much as yours, if not more.

I haven’t given you money in years. I’m exhausted. I feel harassed. Why would I pay you to harass me?

A lot of people are hurting financially these days and can’t give like they used to. In turn, this means charitable donations are down across the board. Even major institutions that have never had trouble raising funds are struggling. This naturally leads to increasingly shrill requests to those who have given before to give and give and give some more. This makes sense, from a standpoint of pure logic. Really, though, how often are humans dictated by logic? We’re more complicated than that. We value our money but we value our time even more since we know we can’t make more of that no matter how hard we work or even how lucky we might be. To really screw with an old phrase, no one ever looks back on their deathbed and says, “I wish I spent more time reading emails from charities.”

Once upon a time there was a guy who wanted to date me. He was a good guy, sweet and funny and cute and kind. I might have been very interested in him if his technique for wooing didn’t come in the form of at least 2 phone calls per day, notes and cards left in my door regularly, and even sometimes mysteriously appearing while I was hanging out with other people and hadn’t mentioned my plans to him. He wasn’t quite stalking me, he was just making a big effort in his stumbling adolescent way, but that was enough. I knew he wasn’t boyfriend material because he was already making me feel trapped without consenting to even a single date. He was eating away at my precious time and energy.

This is how you are making me feel now, dear charity.

I know I can opt-out of emails, but the thing is, I really do appreciate knowing what you are working on. If there were some form of compromise in place, like an email list that only receives breaking news with a reminder that donations would help, I would be okay with that. I would probably even give you money again as soon as I can. Heck, I’d happily volunteer to help set it up and give you some of that time I value more than money.

As it stands, you are always in my mind when I am choosing who to give to. I don’t really need the reminders. You are the top charity in your cause and get tons of publicity. I doubt anyone who gives to you needs reminders more than, say, once a year or so. I’d probably be okay with a request per month, even. That seems reasonable. I know you need more money and need to ask everyone for it.

Still, I long for a day when your requests are a little less hyperbolic and a whole lot less frequent. If that day ever comes I will support you with everything I have.

The line between helpful and harassing is a very fine one. Find it and then stay on the good side of it.

Keep up the good work you do and I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

Love,

CraftLass

P.S. Yes, this was inspired by one specific charity. No, I’m not going to name it. The thing is, while one has truly infuriated me, everything I wrote can be applied to many. You, dear reader, and I may not agree on a single cause but I bet we’ve both experienced this!

Daughter of a Bitch (A Mission Statement)

My mother was an educator. I don’t mean that was her job or even career, though it was how she always earned her money. She was one of those amazing people who lived to teach instead of teaching to live.

That was about all I knew when she was still alive. I knew her resume, knew she was a high school salutatorian who never got over losing valedictorian by a tiny fraction of a point, that she had gotten her PhD with a dissertation on something to do with Chaucer, that she had once taught college but had moved on to high school by the time I came along. I knew that her days were filled with students and her evenings were, well, often filled with students, parents, and other teachers. If she was home, she was grading, writing lesson plans, or, when she’d finished her necessary work, she was plotting how to make education better for every student in her school, state, nation, and perhaps even world.

That’s not to say she wasn’t an active parent to me. Oh, no. My dad was the quantity time parent, a “Mr. Mom” before that movie existed (even with his full-time high-pressure job, which blows my mind), but my mother swooped in with quality time in regular intervals. Her intimidating intellect and passion for great thought translated into some pretty cool mother-daughter activities, at least now that I look back with the realization that most moms don’t actually speak Old English, let alone think Beowulf is a bedtime story a small child might enjoy hearing (since I couldn’t understand, it wasn’t scary, but I loved the weird sounds she made and the poetry of it all). She took me to visit places of great history, here and abroad, and usually taught me far more about them than the poor tour guides who got stuck with us. Almost no vacation was allowed without an educational component, even our winter trips to thaw on Caribbean beaches always included visiting the markets to meet locals and learn their oral traditions of story and song. When I discovered Shakespeare on my own at the age of 7 due to the 27 copies (yes, I counted) of his Complete Works she had on a shelf and childhood boredom, she didn’t swoop in to teach me about what I was reading, but let me form my own questions first and then answered them without an ounce of patronization. I didn’t often have her attention, but when I did, it was her full attention.

Did I resent that she would often have to miss my activities due to work? Sure. I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and saw many of my friends had moms who were always around and unfailingly cheered them on. I had yet to learn that quality time is superior to quantity time, too. Looking back, though, I don’t just understand, I am so grateful that I had a mom who forced me to learn independence from the beginning and mixed it up by building great memories when we were together. Don’t get me wrong, if I needed her, she was there in a heartbeat, but my first thought in a crisis has never been, “Help me, Mommy!” She was my last resort, the great weapon I’d unleash on a world that I thought had done me wrong.

She was far from perfect. Her temper was epic and, as I grew older and became more and more like her (read: stubborn), we clashed even more than most mothers and daughters. She pushed me just as hard as she pushed herself and I often cracked under the relentless pressure. I sometimes felt like I was one of her trophies, but one that could never be polished enough. That I definitely resented full-time.

So, when she was hit by a drunk driver and died in a foreign land that prevented not only a goodbye but kept me from the knowledge that she was dead until almost two days later, it was a very confusing experience. The grief of losing her so unexpectedly mingled with a sense of being free for the first time in my life to just be myself. I was 15 and in full rebellion mode. I worried that it was possible that I had wished her dead, even. Stupid thoughts, yes, but natural in the midst of crisis. I used that new-found freedom, though, even reveled in it. I spent a long time barely thinking about her outside of those random moments where it would hit me that she really was gone and I’d allow myself to feel the loss for just a little while.

Cut to 2013: She’s been gone for well over half of my life, a life that I have built into one I never would have expected to have back when she was around. Along the way I have become friends with many educators, even a few with PhDs of their own. I, a high school and college dropout, seem to regularly wind up in long conversations about education and how to improve it, conversations that echo my childhood dinner table. While talking to a professor friend about how I had found my mother mentioned in some recent scholarly works as an expert in the field of Chaucer (a huge surprise for me), my mother’s choice to switch to teaching high school came up and my friend pointed out that my mom got to leave the competitive world of high academia when she did made that move. I immediately replied that my mom would have relished the competition, then realized I wasn’t qualified to answer for her. I had no idea who she was, really. I only knew her as my mother and as a resume. That’s the worst part of losing a parent before you are an adult yourself.

So, I called the person who stood right next to her through all of her choices, my father, and asked, “How did Mom feel about academia, was the competitive atmosphere any part of her decision to leave, and did she struggle with that choice?” It led to a lot of discussion. He revealed that she was pretty sure she would succeed in academia and she knew she’d miss the opportunity to spend a lot of time in research, but that she felt a calling and saw teaching high school as far more challenging than publishing. She did once tell me directly, when I first realized she had been a professor, that, “In college, minds are already set in their ways, and many students can no longer be reached. I wanted to change that, and that meant getting to kids when they were younger.” Still, finding out that her life-changing choice had been easy was revealing. She could have been a star, with piles of scholarly works bearing her name. Instead, she toiled away endlessly in the dark caves of public education, trying to convince the kids she encountered who had never tasted opportunity that education and hard work was the path to a better life and pissing off parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, and the teacher’s union along the way because, to her, all that mattered was the kids. She thought tenure was a travesty, that teachers should always be available to any student who wanted to learn more regardless of what time it was, and that education was the only way to make a better world for everyone. She climbed her way into being a principal so she could create change for even more students and I remember clearly her pride in finding ways to get lazy teachers out of the classroom despite not being able to fire them due to the system she had to operate within. She missed teaching, but the kids needed more from her. She got a lot of threats from every direction, to the point where I was only allowed two years in public school due to fears that I would experience retaliation on her behalf, despite her love of and deep belief in public education. She never wavered in her mission and it truly was a mission.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I understand a good part of who my mother was as a person and what drove her to be that way. More importantly, I feel like we could be friends now, something that even two days ago I never would have thought. She’s been gone for over 20 years, but she’s not gone at all. Not in the “she’s in heaven looking after me” or “her spirit will always be with me” ways, but through imparting those values in her only child. I suddenly understand why I always choose the most difficult path open to me. I’ve often wished that I could be a “normal” person who can focus on things like having security, who didn’t prefer stress and struggle to ease, and who doesn’t feel the pain of those with less privilege with such acuity. Today, I’m letting all of that go, not in my old apathetic this-is-just-who-I-am way, but with purpose and as a choice.

I’ve always been my mother’s daughter, but now I’m determined to BE MY MOTHER’S DAUGHTER.

No, this doesn’t mean I’m going back to college anytime soon or aiming to work in the school system, that would not be true to who I am or the talents I possess. Nor does it mean that I’m going to start screaming the moment someone angers me (that part of her was a big lesson in how not to live). I’m just going to make an active choice to embrace the uncomfortable parts of being me and use them as fuel instead of fighting or bemoaning them.

I’m going to stop rebelling against the imaginary mother I’d concocted out of the haphazard memories that are all you have when you lose a parent during that time when you’re not really supposed to get along with your parents and do my best to live up to the woman who actually was my mother instead.

I’m going to use the same issues that have held me back to drive myself forward.

I’m going to recognize that her less savory behavior towards me was not due to disappointment but rather the potential she saw in me and desire to see it fulfilled. Even with expert educators, their own children don’t come with a manual. She did the best she could and that’s a whole lot better than a lot of children get.

I’m going to do what I can to become someone my mother would be truly proud to call her daughter, because there could be no higher honor in all the land.

Despite the amount of effort I know this will take, I feel a sense of peace within me for the very first time, all because a friend made a comment that sparked a question I couldn’t honestly answer.

Life may be too short, but it never stops bringing surprises.

The Best and the Worst

I don’t scare very easily. I have walked the streets of many a city alone, feeling perfectly comfortable just about anywhere. I’m cautious, always aware of everyone around me, as anyone who has spent a lot of time in urban environments learns to do, but it’s been a long time since I felt a true threat.

I’m disgusted by many actions aimed towards women, but I’m also used to a lot of offensive behavior, have become inured to it (sadly). I rail against it more for other women’s sake than my own.

Then I got on the “other” PATH train last night, meaning the connecting route from the World Trade Center to Hoboken, with a change at Grove Street. I take the 33rd Street line at all sorts of hours somewhat regularly, it’s always crowded late at night and, while sometimes annoying, it always feels safe. One of the myriad reasons I chose to move to the Mile Square City was I have never felt truly threatened on the train or the streets at any hour, even before I lived here or it was known as a safe place. I was tired of the extra precautions required in some not-so-great neighborhoods I’d lived in and paying for cabs in the wee hours. Anecdotally, most of the women I know who have been attacked at night in the city were attacked on the subway (I have no statistics, and most seem to go unreported anyway, so I’m a little suspicious of data on this topic). Being brave does not mean taking stupid risks, so getting to avoid the MTA system without spending a fortune is one of the many great perks of living Jersey-side.

I had been hanging out downtown with two male friends, who were gracious enough to walk me to two blocks away from the station before we said our goodbyes. I paused for a moment to admire the St. Paul’s Church graveyard, as I always do when I walk by, thinking about the rich history it contains. Walking on, I stared up at World Trade Center 1, finally nearing completion and beautiful enough to win over this hard heart of mine (I wanted them to just rebuild the old buildings, show everyone we don’t give in, but I accept what we’ve been given to ogle). I was in a fantastic mood, having had a wonderful night with people I love, and skipped my way down the escalators and stairs to the platform. There was a decent amount of people, less than I’m used to at that time, but there were enough that when we got to Grove Street, quite a few people got out. Most went up the stairs and out of the station, leaving only two men and me on the platform. I sat down and noticed I had 1x data, so I checked the schedule and saw the train should arrive at 1:55. It was 1:47. Okay, that’s not long. 1:55 rolled around…1:56…1:57…2:00…

Suddenly I heard a voice call out, “Look at me!” Reflexively looking towards the voice I saw a man standing by a column with his pants down. I took a deep breath and looked pointedly down at my phone, trying to just not give him any satisfaction, and tweeted:

I tried to shrug it off as I just really wanted to the train to come. Right then. But then I looked up again and the guy was walking towards me, with his hips thrust forward and pants around his knees. My Spidey-sense was screaming and I could hear the sounds of construction above me. Before I even knew what I was doing I was racing up the stairs, with the guy in full pursuit. Yellow tape and a barrier were blocking off a stairway to the street. I flat-out hurdled them and ran up to a construction worker in a mask and rapidly told him what had happened. One of his co-workers came over, and upon hearing the very brief version, went running down the stairs to find the guy just as the train finally came it. I don’t know if Mr. Creepy jumped on the train or ran out of the station via the open stairs somehow, but he was gone. The first construction worker went over to the help phone and contacted the police while the other asked me for more details. We all went up to the street to wait for the police, who arrived a few minutes later and took my statement and description of the man. One of the workers went back to his job while the other made sure I was getting into a cab home. With no cash on hand. I called and woke my partner, gushing out a non-detailed explanation, fearful that my drained battery would run out on me before I got through. The phone stayed alive. I was going to make it home okay and the tension started to ease a little.

Note: I meant the PATH train specifically there.

Getting home, seeing my partner waiting on the stoop for me, was the best feeling I’ve had in ages. I told him the story and he gave me a huge hug, then went back to bed. Well, when I checked Twitter again… The response was incredible, full of support from all sorts of people, and even thanks for sharing the experience. That’s what made me decide to post about this here, if this helps even one woman feel a little less alone or a bit more empowered to get out of a bad situation, then it’s worth writing.

Instinct is an incredibly powerful thing. I have no idea what might have happened if I hadn’t listened to mine. When a man groped me long-ago on a rush-hour subway I kicked him in the most effective place and he crumpled. That was the right thing in that trapped situation. Last night, I probably could have fought but knowing there were people nearby enabled me to listen to my flight instinct instead. It was the right move and reinforced my belief that most people are good, despite seeing a bit of the low side of humanity.

Still, I’m angry. The knowledge that my little incident last night was far less scary than most women in the world face regularly, many even in their own homes, gives me the chills. I woke today feeling mentally empowered but with muscle exhaustion from the tension, the thought of that being a somewhat normal state to anyone is unacceptable. I’m very lucky, I was raised to be prepared and strong, and have a wonderful support system. What about the women who have no such good fortune?

We can only do so much to directly change or even punish the bad people of the world, like this man who will haunt me forever. We need to make sure that every girl gets an education in how valuable she is and reacting to dangers with all her strength, which goes hand-in-hand with access to academic education, according to pretty much every woman who has escaped bad situations from poverty to abuse to systemic misogyny. This is not to say that men are never victims, it’s just that their access to all kinds of education and even help from others is much more common on the global scale. We need to make sure that every woman on this planet can feel she is not alone and simultaneously learn how to take care of herself, without dependency on anyone. It will be a long road, but it’s the only way to improve circumstances for the majority of people.

This morning one of my companions from last night texted, “Do I need to be your subway escort going forward?” It’s a sweet sentiment with the best of intentions, but actually completely contrary to what anyone needs. If we can’t take care of ourselves we can’t be either safe or free. I would never want to exist in a world where I feel the need to have a man to protect me everywhere I go, that would be a mental prison. True, I turned to men last night, but I would have run up to whoever was there. Asking for help is not the same as dependency, it’s just good sense sometimes, especially when it allows you to avoid being a victim or getting violent yourself (which should always be the very last resort). Conversely, if another person came to me for help under similar circumstances, I’d have reacted just like those two wonderful workers. Humans are simply stronger when we stand together against those who want to use power against us, individually or as a group. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson in all of this.