Spreading Like a Virus

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Hello from Southern California, where overreaction and spreads like a virus.  Like much of the world, there is a fair bit of concern over the coronavirus (COVID-19) around the area.  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in it since you can’t clear your throat without someone thinking you are as deadly as the plague.  I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor about it, but like I said, it’s easy to get caught up in the panic.  The infection rate is going to be really high, and while the death rate is not going to ever be as high as it currently is, it’s still going to exceed the everyday flu.  In hopes to raise my spirits about this mess, and just for the interest of capturing a moment of in time, I thought I would describe some of what is going around me with this thing.

For starters, it wrecked some exciting plans.  I was supposed to be on an airplane tomorrow to Orland to spend a couple days at the NASA Quality Leadership Forum, a forum of NASA’s quality leadership, as you can probably guess.  I’ve attended it in the past and enjoyed it in the past, but this time I was slated to be a speaker.  Me, a hundred or so folks in ties, and a slide show.  It isn’t happening because of NASA Headquarters cautiousness.  Granted, it probably was the safe path to take, and it likely will still be held at a later date, but it still was a missed opportunity for me.

Instead, I am here this week.  Like I do every week, I went to buy my groceries on Sunday.  I tried to follow suggestions that I should keep my pantry stocked for 2 weeks worth of food, but that recommendation suggests I can plan that far in advance … and that my pantry can hold two weeks of food, heck my kitchen barely holds enough room for a sink.

Buying groceries was a goofy adventure, though.  You really know what people think are staples in a panic in these situations.  The bread shelves were fairly empty (though only the cheap brands).  Rice was generally sold out.  Chicken soup.  Eggs.  Pasta and Pasta sauce.  All of these were hard to come by.  Spam, in particular, was gone completely.  The spam shelf was like a black hole of nothing (surrounded by chili).

Of course, there are shortages of hand sanitizers and face masks.  The sanitizer makes sense.  The loud statements from people in the know, however, say that wearing masks don’t keep you from getting sick – just keep the masks from those who already are sick or those who really need masks.

The run-on toilet paper makes no sense.

At work, like I said before, they are being cautious.  There is a partial travel ban.  International travel requires a mission-critical reason, and only to locations that aren’t considered a significant threat.  Also, international travelers won’t be allowed back on JPL for 14 days.  Domestic travel is unrestricted but discouraged.  Many NASA centers held a telenetworking day (a day when everyone capable was encouraged to work from home) on Friday to test their ability to have people not come in.  JPL didn’t fully participate as we are going through some IT changes that aren’t ready for such a test.  Big flags went up when it was reported that someone at the NASA Ames center in Silicon Valley tested positive for COVID-19, and the whole of the facility went on mandatory telenetwork.  We are set to get a briefing tomorrow – ironically during a townhall (though one that is virtual only, but wouldn’t that have been funny).  The message here continues to be the usual message from everyone – wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, avoid large groups of people.

Like all situations like this, it’s easy to make jokes.  We try to think of different ways to greet people other than shaking hands — Nerds like the Spock ‘live long and prosper’ salute; I like jazz hands; others do fist bumps or foot taps.  I like sharing a meme where Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is getting rejected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Neil:  Hands
CDC: Yes, wash them for at least 20 seconds
Neil: touching hands
CDC:  No, please don’t touch hands
Neil: reaching out
CDC: avoiding that too
Neil: Touching Me
CDC: oh hell
Neil: TOUCHING YOU

Then, of course, it has to be said that this is still something to be taken seriously.  Just follow the simple rules.
Wash your hands, a lot, for at least 20 seconds.
Keep the areas that are common to other people clean, or clean things you come in contact with.
Cover your mouth with your arm when you cough or sneeze; and if you do it into your hands, wash them immediately.
Symptoms are coughing, fever, shortness of breath – if you get these, go see someone.

I think I failed at keeping things fun, but my fingers stay crossed I can still laugh about this later.  It’s been a rough last four months for a lot of loved ones, and all it takes is one loved one to be effected to make this not funny anymore.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and see you on the other side of this panic.

The Unreadable Critique

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In one of those Facebook memories, I was reminded of something from two years ago that was a strange new adventure for me. Sitting at the Downtown Montrose Starbucks, where I am sitting as I blog today, I was editing a short story hours before submitting it to a critique group.  It would be the first time I would share a work of fiction to anyone I actually knew.  In fact, the group I was meeting with included published writers, and this was the first time I shared something with actual professionals.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well.  The most memorable critique (and it was meant and received in a supportive way) was “this is unreadable.”  That may have been the harshest critique, but it followed a majority of negative comments.

It didn’t discourage me.  Well, it did, but it made me get to work to hone my craft.  Take the feedback, and get better.  I had a sense of purpose from the process.  Picture if you will, the timeframe.  I had been living in California for a year by then, and six months into house payments the squeeze of the cost of living was starting to circle me.  While I was enjoying myself, I started to repeat a motto:

“It’s time to start turning my hobbies into profit centers.”

Okay, maybe that comes across blunt, blunter then it should.  I have hobbies, and I like to do them because I enjoy doing them.  It’s just that until recently, I never really tried to exploit them.  Which, come to think about it “exploit” doesn’t sound any better.  I wasn’t expecting to go running to the bank, I just wanted to take my free time and my investments in those hobbies and make it so they were still fun with at worst make it no longer a losing effort.  The fall before, I took long strides to expand my band judging skills, including venturing into winter color guard (something that might be a blog later this week as I get into that new season).  Trying to explore what I could do through writing was something completely different.

Honestly, I am a long way from doing anything that suggests I can turn a profit on writing.  My interest is in writing a novel-length story.  To do that first, you have to type up a novel-length story; which is way harder than it sounds.  I’ve mentioned I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, and have accomplished over 50,000 words on five occasions.  I can honestly say that those attempts resulted in completing one novel – and it sucks.  I’ve actually worked on four novels throughout that time, but struggled with a full plot, or put myself in situations where I scrapped ideas for a number of reasons.  As a great meme once said:

“Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Teach a child to write a book and they will be tormented their whole life by self-doubt.”

Joining the critique group was my next big jump into this process.  Editing.  Let me tell you, editing is hard; especially for someone like me.  I tend to visualize a story and tell it based on what I see.  The problem I face is getting the words on the screen to match both what I visualize and what I thought I told.  I”m sure if any of you read my blogs before you have seen more than a few grammatical or typographic errors.  I obviously wouldn’t have done that on purpose, heck I might even though I wrote those items correctly.  A critique I got often early on was to read what I wrote out loud so I could hear what the issues are.  It never worked for me because when I read it, even to myself out loud, I was saying what I wanted the words to say not what they actually said.  A word speak app has helped with that, but I battle some common issues (like I wait for that “you are mixing up tenses” every time I submit to the group).   Web tools help like Grammarly has been a lifesaver — I even use that for work e-mails and reports.    As a friend I know from another writer group told me:

“When I finished my first novel in college, my professor said, ‘good job, maybe in 10 years you will be done editing and be able to publish’,”

All of this is what comes before the final stages of preparing a novel, which is honestly more of a dream than a step along the way.  There are editors who do the hard sweep of everything.  There are beta readers who look at the whole of the book for feedback.  Then you go into the brutal failure rich world of publishing.

I plug away regardless, putting together what I can when I can to share with the critique group.  Their varied backgrounds lead to great commentary and critiques.  Some are a prolific young adult or romance novelists.  Some are short story specialists.  Some are into SciFi, some into fantasy.  Some focus on the hard details of what I submit, picking away at each inconsistency that needs to be resolved.  Some look at the conceptual flow to see if the story is entertaining or interesting.  Some focus on pacing.  Some focus on character.  Some just tell me “you’re mixing up your tenses”.  In return, I do my part and give my feedback to what they submit when I can.

I’d like to sit here and say that the person who found my work to be unreadable at my first submission had changed his heart, but I can’t.  Sadly he had a sudden illness and passed away just before New Years.  Before then, I had consistently shared my thanks for his feedback, which remained honest – good and bad.  That’s all you really want from a critique, honesty.  Because if you know what works and what doesn’t you’ll always get better.  Because as I say all the time in my real job:

“It’s not what we do wrong, it’s what we do about it.”

A Rover’s First Miles

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Sometime either in the near future or the near past, JPL’s next rover will begin its journey to Mars.  For over five years, JPL has been planning, designing, building, and testing the Mars 2020 mission; the target towards launch this upcoming July.  It is essentially a redo on the continued successful Mars Science Laboratory rover commonly known as Curiosity.  Mars 2020 (which will get it’s own fun name soon) has been our flagship program for as long as I have been here.  I even blogged about it last June:

Mars 2020 is Coming

The assembly took a few months a mid-last year, testing a few more months until the beginning of this year, and now they are ready for the next stage.  A cross-country road trip.

Mars 2020 will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a date yet to be made public but likely around mid-July.  To get the mission to Florida, they boxed everything up and put the mission on the smoothest rides they could get.  The mission’s departure date, arrival date, route, and progress isn’t made public just in case there are security risks; however, here on the lab, we are pretty aware of the increased activity in the high bay where it was assembled and the funny looking trucks coming and going from the area.

Getting the mission to Flordia isn’t as easy as you might think.  For starters, there’s a lot to it.  The rover, which is the size of a small SUV, is pretty bulky even when it’s in a stowed condition like it is now.  There are three other components that have to go with it.  The heat shield attaches below the rover for entry into the Mars atmosphere.  The rover will be slowed to the surface using a unit called the ‘sky crane’; which uses a series of parachutes, a lowering crane, and thrusters to place the rover gently on the Martian surface undamaged.  Then the cruise stage, which is essentially the propulsion system used for course corrections between Earth and Mars.  When the mission arrives at the Cape, all of that hardware would need to be tested and checked out before the final assembly begins.  The testing and assembly require fixturing and other hardware, so there are trucks and trucks just full of ground support equipment.

I say trucks, but that is just a guess.  There would definitely be trucks leaving JPL because nothing else would work around here to carry anything out of the lab.  The challenge with any spaceflight hardware is that they are pretty sensitive to vibrations.  That’s why it likely won’t go by plane.  Flying, whether you notice it or not, is constant shaking even when there is no turbulence.  Sure, the mission will see a fair bit of vibration on the launch, but that’s a couple minutes – not four or five hours.  Usually, the hardware is only flown in its final assembled condition if there isn’t a better option (like flying overseas).  Sometimes, the hardware is transported by boat simply because even that is less of a stress on hardware than by car, but that’s usually just amongst the gulf states.

I guess I like to picture that the mission is riding in a truck there because it makes for a great visual.  A convoy of space hardware in containers running hard across the open road.  I could even see it being like Mad Max: Fury Road complete with a guy strung up playing a guitar shooting fire from its end.  Then again, I still love the idea of The Great American Road Trip.  I’ve personally driven coast-to-coast five times and driven in every state in the country, love what I see when I do it.  I’m even considering making the drive myself to watch the launch this July, with the pup but without the flame-thrower guitarist.

Adventure awaits for our Rover.  This trip is the first of many many long miles passing by thousands and thousands of people who will wish it well on it’s journey.  Sure it will be on the back of a vehicle, but soon enough it will be on the top of a rocket.  After that, he ventures out on his own on a planet that we can only dream about standing on.

Expecting LA’s Best

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Here’s a hint, when talking to kids about NASA, expect the unexpected.

There are a couple days now that I list under my “favorite JPL Days of the Year”, and one just passed.  About a week ago, I volunteered to present at a local elementary school as part of the Los Angeles School District’s LA’s Best program.  This afterschool program funds and supports afterschool clubs in the areas of interest that 3rd thru 5th graders may be interested in.   Honestly, the kids that are in attendance a fair big distance from picking where they end up, but our involvement does seem to spark a heck of a lot of excitement over space and science.

This is the third year I volunteered, and what really kicked this event off that separated it from the previous two was that  … I got training before I walked in the door.  The last couple of times, I had to miss the training and didn’t know what to expect.  Now that I  know what to expect, I got told what to expect.

And still, things went unexpected.

The process always goes – I walk in, I say I work for JPL, then I ask if anyone has any questions.  The following half-hour is nothing but hands in the air and randomness.  Most of the time, they are asking fundamental space questions – for instance, each year I was asked what was in a black hole, and how many planets are there in the universe. – both questions with weird answers and I am not the one to ask, but I’m the one in the cool JPL shirt.   I tend to get the kids focused on JPL missions — what’s coming up, what’s going on, that sort of thing.  That’s easy for me to do because that’s the stuff I get interested in.  Where things go off the rail is the intangible questions.

I mean, I like that I had engineering minds trying to figure out how they could throw a camera down a black hole,  I like that the scientists from the year before were debating what constitutes a planet.

This year, they got personal.

They asked me why I wanted to work for JPL.

They asked me what I wanted to do with my career … 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders asking this.  Sometimes my own management won’t ask me that question.

They asked me what was the biggest failure in my life.  Not what NASA or JPL’s failure. … mine.

Then came the question that forced me to think fast, but had the greatest reaction:
Girl:  “How much money does JPL pay you?”
Me:  “Enough that I can afford a dog.”
Whole-Class:  WWWOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!

As much fun as answering questions was, we spent a little time watching a rover drive over a speed bump on my IPad before building straw rockets and making a mess.

In many ways, what I was doing could come across dumb or goofy., and I am already rolling my eyebrows at whatever my dad (the retired teacher) is going to say about inspiration and junk.  Then again, I walked into that event with someone in mind.  My high school chemistry teacher, the one person I can point to that would have led me down an engineering path, passed away the day before the event.  It’s still etched in my memory the day he taught us about Avrogado’s Number (aka a mole, aka 6.02 x 10^23) by sitting on top of the bench at the front of the class.  I thought of that and I thought, there are stranger ways to inspire people.

A Pupdate Long Time Coming

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As I was milling about the house last night and thinking about this little old blog, it hit me that I hadn’t given a decent Pupdate in a long long time.  At one point, the most popular thing about the Bear Feed was posts about my dog, because let’s face it – he’s hella more interesting than I am.

For those of you new-ish to the Blog (I’m talking to you, Dean, just to see if you are paying attention).  I am talking about Auggie, also known as Auggie the Doggie, AugDog,  Pooper, Pooper Dooper, Farty McFartFart, Dummy, Buddy, and legally known as AKA Fullthrottle’s Gold Rush King.  You may get a few other names I use for him as we go along, but you get the point.  Auggie is a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier, important to know because that officially classifies him as an ‘aggressive breed’ in California (more on that later).   He came into my life a little over seven years ago just weaned from his momma and has been pooping up my life ever since.

For the most part, there isn’t much to update about Auggie, he’s just chill.  Little Dude abides.  When I work, he has his routine.  We get up, he does his business, he sleeps all day, I get home, he does his business, I give some belly scratches, and then he sleeps on my bed in the places least comfortable for me.  He’s always been a fan of looking out the window, so I have pushed a recliner into one corner allowing him to get up the three feet to see out the big windows.  Occasionally, he needs to protect me from the evil delivery people or evil squirrels or evil dogs that barked at him first; but otherwise, normal days are normal.  When I am around the house, it can be more of a pain – because SleepyPuppy needs to follow me everywhere and that means he can’t get in his 20 hours of sleep a day.  Plus there is the constant need to tell me to let him go outside even though he just went out 20 minutes ago.

Auggers is generally healthy too.  This year marks the first year he is (in dog years) older than me.  He had a shoulder issue a couple years back, a bone chip that the vet suggested was degenerative and something likely we need to watch for as he goes along.  Oddly enough, the best thing to help this is for him to be a sports fan.   Because Augolicious loves the Green Bay Packers, he wears their jersey all the time (or at least, I put him in the jersey).  This actually helps apply pressure to joints that could degenerate.  Occasionally, I will see a limp or a hitch in his step suggesting he’s feeling pain, but he’ll try to hide it as long as he can.  Other than that and a weird yeasty thing in his ear that was itchy (and he would tend to miss and hit his eye leading to a couple days in the cone of shame), he’s doing pretty good.

Where people do worry is the time I have been spending away from him.  I’m not heartless, I worry about that too … a lot.  That being said, it’s a little bit par for the course.  For the most part of his life, I used PetSmart’s PetHotel to board him.  I started using them in Alaska out of sheer convenience.  They were the closest boarding facility to my house, literally a half-mile away.  We did all our pet shopping and we practiced a ton of our dog training in those aisles.  They loved him there at that South Anchorage branch, too – and I am not just saying that they would send an announcement over the loudspeakers when Auggie came in to be boarded so they could all greet him.  After we left Alaska, it just became a safe choice.  As a national brand, I can rely on each location to have his vet information, background, and contact information without much concern.  Plus I knew their rules.  Because Auggie is an “aggressive breed” (I can’t “quotation mark” that phrase enough, mind you), PetSmart has restrictions – the biggest is he can’t play with other dogs.  So, he just has to play one-on-one with a human (kind of a lose-win if you ask me).  When I lived in Boston, I didn’t have a PetSmart handy, but I drove around with him everywhere … and I mean EVERYWHERE … so when I did board him it was at a local pet hospital where they still loved him (one girl would always do the “Auggie Butt Dance” to mimic the way he gets fired up when seeing people he likes but still has to walk).

Thing is, it’s not the place I keep him.  It’s the amount of time I keep him there.  Auggie spent nearly half his time in boarding in November and December.  In one of my previous posts, I said goodbye to a dear friend.  I went to the friend’s funeral, but the one thing that almost kept me from going was that I had to put Auggie back into the PetSmart after less than 24 hours being out, and that’s after week after week after week.  I was so worried about it, I took a minute to talk to one of the PetSmart people if I was causing any red flags.  I had been in there enough that while I felt I could trust him to be honest with me.  What he said has stuck with me:

“It’s not the amount of time people leave their pets here.  It’s the people themselves.  We know Auggie enough that we know you enough.  And we’re not worried about you.”

So, that’s the news of Fuzzball.  Feel pupdated now.

Let’s Have a Talk About the Jedi

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Alright.  I gave you space.  I gave you time.  I gave you every chance in the world to get yourself up to speed.  I’m ready to risk the heartbreak, the arguments, and most of all the spoilers.

It’s time we discuss Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker – also known as Episode IX (or 9).

I am guessing 99% of you know what film I am talking about, but if you crawled out from under a rock or was marooned on a deserted island for the half-century, let me just give you the scope.  I am, of course, talking about the epic space opera Star Wars.  Starting with eponyms 1977 film, moving making and special effects were radically changed on the back of a storyline and characters that were so easy to love that it was easy for any five-year-old to follow it for the rest of their life.  As the “Episode” suggests, this was the 9th and final in the original ‘trilogy of trilogies’.  There is a plan to make more movies, and the scope of the Star Wars universe is handled in different media, most publicly these days in the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian”, less publically by the now canon 1978 holiday special, but from the scope of the original plan by the show’s developer George Lucas, this was the last of it.

So how did as a Star Wars loving public handle it?  Well, like we handled most Start Wars things for most of the life of the Star Wars Saga … with a lot of bellyaching.

For the record, I loved Rise of Skywalker, but let me get back to it.

The second film released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) is commonly considered the best of all nine films.  Heck, Empire is sometimes placed on a level with the greatest films of all time.  Keeping that in mind, seven films followed, none which matched the greatness of Empire.  The problem I have is that it can be an unfair comparison.   Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) was very good, but was hated by some in the nerd community because of Ewoks – little furry creatures that save the day late in the movie.  Are Ewoks as cool as droids?  No, but that’s no reason to spread hate on a film.

Now, for you Star Wars fans, this isn’t leading me to start to defend Jar Jar Binks — I think we all know where is going to go.   After nearly sixteen years waiting for a new Star Wars movie, the initial crawl told us we would be reward with  – a trade dispute.  The trilogy of episodes I, II, & III wasn’t good, to say the least, but they aren’t without their positives.  Those films failed due to poor dialogue and stale performances through all three movies.  In hindsight, however, much of the mythos, story, and breadth of the Star Wars universe was established in between the whining and establishing the high ground.  The biggest was in The Phantom Menace (Episode I) when … well … let me get back to that point.

After another twenty years, we were finally rewarded with sequels.  I was incredibly excited about this because regardless of what you thought of the prequel trilogy, it was a story we already knew.  I had literally gone nearly 40 years without learning something new about the force, the galaxy, any of that.  The Force Awakens (Episode VII) was a reward.  Some liked it, I loved it.

Where the controversy arose came in the next installment The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) released a couple years ago.  The Star Wars production team made a change in the writer, director, and everything – and many feel this was a problem.  So, I stand by my opinion that I liked the film, though I like it less now than when it first came out.  Again, it was new, it was the world I liked.  It was better than the original trilogy because the performances were energetic, heartfelt, and rich with depth.  It just went in some odd directions.  Rotten Tomatoes, a  site that tracks film reviews to see how people feel about a film, pointed out that film reviewers loved The Last Jedi, but the fans didn’t.  I kept saying “if you don’t like this film, then you don’t deserve nice things”.

This brought us The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX).  Released in December, I sat with my 3D goggles on hours after it’s release soaking in the IMAX screen for one last go at it.  In short, I loved it.  There were a fair bit of things they did for fan service, but I am a fan and I liked to be serviced.  This film made me laugh out loud, it made me cry real tears, and it made me think about life itself – and put simply, that makes for a very full set of emotions.  I wouldn’t say it stuck the landing the same way Avengers: Endgame did earlier this year, but it was still incredible.  The thing is, the original trilogy was good because actors (even unknown actors) were given the freedom to throw themselves into loveable characters.  One of my favorite moments in all nine movies was the “Light Speed Skipping vs. Dropping a Tree on BB-8” banter near the start of this film – timing, comedic, and rich against sounds dubbed in later was gold.

Then, of course, I started hearing the bellyache.  There was anger over the surprise return of the villain.  There were a lot of beefs about the surprise powers showing up throughout the film.  There were complaints about the ending and open questions.  But most of all, I have heard a lot of people making a stink about the “Diad”.

Put simply, the last three episodes centered on two opponents.  One a Jedi, one a sith (or a bad guy like Darth Vader).  These films focused a lot on how the two seemed to be drawing together but were challenged by their commitment to their side of the force.  In this last film, they gave that a name, calling it a diad.  Some pointed to it and tried to say it was nothing but a forced love interest.  I pointed to it that the whole nine films was leading to that final conclusion.

From nearly the first words spoken about the force, they said it was what creates balance in the known universe.  The balance was the keyword.  During most of these series, the dark side controlled things, which sent the force out of balance.  However, Episode I starts with the Jedi in full control of the force without a single Sith lord known.  They even suggested it was that way for generations.  My argument was, that it was out of balance as well.  The whole of the story followed the rise of dark, the overzealous need to control it, then it’s fall; however, The Force awakened to search for balance and it used the diad to find it.

Granted, tons of questions arose from that, but the bellyaching needs to end.  We were given a massive treat in what this set of movies became.  We were lucky to be given these films, and I feel blessed to have seen them all in the theatre when they were first released.  Star Wars captured my imagination long ago in a small town far far away, and you won’t catch me bellyaching about that.

Xmas Letter 2019

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Every year I send out a Christmas Letter to Friends and Family, and I’ve made it a habit of sharing it in the blog for the last few years.  So here it is.

A disclaimer — those of you who normally get it in the mail, they only hit the post office yesterday, so if you want to wait you can wait.

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Happy Belated Holidays!!!

Seriously, I couldn’t have written this later.  I am literally writing this on Christmas Eve morning, and it’s going to be a battle to get these little guys to a mailbox in time to spend a lonely Christmas Day in a sorting bin.  Still, it’s here in your hot little hands ready for your read.

Here it is … Your annual Mitch & Auggie Nelson Christmas Letter.

So what’s been going on?  Well, the usual ‘a lot’ and ‘not much.’

For starters, I had a health scare.  Months of ignoring signs that my blood pressure was getting out of control, I went into the ER and stayed at the Hospital for a few days to treat it.  While I didn’t have a heart attack, I was knocking at the door.  While good medication and a doctor helps, I still have some work to do on the old ‘making lifestyle changes,’ but I am getting there.  Truth be told, I was really lucky to have it all happen while visiting my dear friends Chadd and Heather Creed.  Through their support, love, and ridiculously high generocity, I came out the better.

With that little scare, I got to see my parents and brother, who turned it into a summer California Vacation.  It was one of three times I got to spend with them all.  I returned home for my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage like always; however, I returned again in December on more somber terms.  We said goodbye to an old friend from my high school days John Mundt, who helped form a lot of my creativity and passions by just being his own special, weird self.

I continue to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab, a NASA Center based in Pasadena, CA, in Procurement Quality Assurance.  Now here for three years, I’ve passed into that territory where I seem to plan to be here for a bit.  One area that I have found myself working with is the interactions between universities and NASA centers, including the challenges faced with quality assurance expectations at each.  It’s getting to the point that in 2020, I am slated to give presetnations on the subject to the community.  To support that, I’ve visited a few universities and interviewed some of the key people working at those organizations.

One place, and a highlight of my year, was to meet with the Aerospace Enterprise team at Michigan Technological University.  This trip stands out because it’s my alma mater.  I hadn’t visited MTU since I graduated back in 1995.  Things have changed since then, but not too much either.  Seeing all the old buildings, the old streets, the old school was a rush of nostalga, but it was also incredible to talk to people with the experience of twenty years behind me as well.

Another experience I won’t soon forget happened in March.  While attending a meeting in Cape Canavaral, collegues were able to get us access to the Vertical Assembly Facility (VAF).  When you visit the Kennedy Center (essentially where they launch rockets to the moon), the VAF stands out at the place where they stack up the rockets for launch.  This is the massive building you see in nearly every photo of the place.  I got to go inside, I got to get freaked out with vertigo at the higher levels.  I got to see where Apollo, the Space Shuttles, and eventually the Orion missions were built up.  This trip also took us to where the Space Shuttle Columbia debris is stored.  They keep it to help build lessons learned for future missions and have built up protective means ot maintain the debris.  I don’t think I will ever forget when the manger of this department walked up to a spot on a wing’s leading edge and pointed to an area where they were missing material.  He said, “it was here that insulation hit, that’s what eventually brought it down.”  It was history he pointed at.

Work kept me traveling.  Colorado seemed a common destination, but I made trips to Dallas, Austin, Iowa City, Long Island, and Phoenix.

I spent a suprising amount of time in Germany for work.  I spent nearly a week there in October for essentially a half day of business, then returned in December for over a week.  If you know your calendars, that means I was there first for Oktoberfest – a bucket item list long standing in my mind – albeit the Oktoberfest in Stuttgart (considered to be second only to Munich, but still a distant second).  Though by being there in December, I experienced the Winter Markets, and fell in love with the warmth and happiness of such things – and started arguments by saying I prefer the Winter Market to the Oktoberfest.

My hobbies continue to keep me busy.  I continue to remain active in the marching arts activity as an adjucator.  I had a long marching band judging season, with six shows spread out from mid-September to mid-November.  I started juding indoor winter color guard, which is a significant shift for me and I continue to train to be blessed as a real life judge.

I continue to work on writing as well, which is a beast in itself.  I belong to critique groups to help develop those skills but can’t say I am getting any better.  As a joke, someone shared with me: “Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Encourage a child to write a book, and they will face a lifetime of editing, self-hatred, and depression.”  Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to think you are a good writer than letting others tell you what they think.  Regardless, if you haven’t, I’d encourage you to follow my blog I use to keep the world up to date with my idiocity:
bearfeed.net
Which is also posted on my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts.

Other than that, my world spins on.  2020 should get interesting, as all weird number years seem to do.  JPL is launching our next big rover in the summer, and I have my fingers crossed to sneak away to watch that.  I return to Germany again in January.  Plus, it’s a new year, and new years always bring hope.  So here’s to the hope to you and yours.

 

From Auggie & Mitch

Merry Christmas
Happy New Year

Statute of Limitations

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I am slipping in a quick post from an airport, just to give closure to a long week.  In my last post, I paid tribute to the passing of a friend I knew when I was in high school, John Mundt, Esq.  John passed last week unexpectedly.  In part due to the unexpected nature, I made the decision to attend the services, which were held yesterday.

For what it’s worth, logistically this wasn’t easy.  I learned of John’s passing late because I was in Germany.  While I was due to come home from Germany shortly, I was returning to Los Angeles, not Wisconsin where the funeral would be; so I needed to make my plans while still overseas.  Short notice meant far from ideal travel plans (mostly including the statement ‘arriving at 1AM).  Plus, Auggie the Doggie would have no more than 18 hours between pick-up and drop-off at the kennel, after only a few days out from being in for a long period of time.  Plus it was cold in Wisconsin.  Plus the gas station in Stoddard I usually stop at for cheese curds was out.

With all the complaints out of the way, let me say I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.  Sometimes going to a funeral is to be there for the family, and don’t get me wrong, I was there to do that.  I am heartbroken for his beloved wife and his surviving sister.  This time, it was as much to remember him and remember the effect he had on us in his small lucky group of uncool nerds.

Many of our circle couldn’t make it, which makes sense with the short notice, the time of year, and just how hard it is to get to where we grew up.  But those of us who did laughed, cried, and loved.

I’ll hold off on the tributes, I think I said enough from my crazy UFO story from last week, but I will tell you this.

When you tell stories of crazy things kids do in high school, it has to come with a statute of limitations.  We were generally good kids.  We didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t commit any crimes (of any great magnitude that is).  But we did do some things that in hindsight were dangerous, crazy, and above all else … stupid.  Thing is, when you are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen doing all that, you’d never tell your parents about it.  So telling them now in front of them … you got to ask for forgiveness.

I sit in this airport tired.  I talked so much, told so many stories, laughed soo hard, that I need to rest.  That’s what tomorrow is for.

Tomorrow I live on.  I live on without John, but live on regardless … and in his spirit I will live on loving what life has to give me.

Which starts with a 9am showing of Star Wars.

Chasing UFOs from Treehouses

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This one’s for John Mundt, Esq, who climbed to the great treehouse this week.

This is the story about chasing UFOs.  Not in the philosophical sense, but in literal terms.  You see, some people can point to a general time in their life that they grew into adulthood … a coming of age time, per se.  Some can look to a particular winter or summer.  I point to a single night in my life.  A night that, after it was over, things just seemed different.

Mid-summer nights along the Mississippi are always humid.  During the day, it can suck the energy out of you in a heartbeat leave you running for whatever air condition you can find, even if it ends up to be educational like going to a library.  During the night as the air cools, the humidity turns into droplets.  They stay above the still hot ground but still drift above the rooftops and street lights.  This night in good old Prairie du Chien, WI (53821), the heat of the day broke, and the fog remained thick at that higher level.  You could see it running up the bluffs around the town in ribbons.  After the hot days, this fog, while eerie, was refreshing.

I was pretty aware of this because I was already bored out of my mind.

There were three of us in the treehouse.  Eric was pretty much the ringleader of the group.  He was, of course, the coolest of us in his own way.  Eric was in rock bands before there were bands for him to rock out with.  He was an artist that could blow your mind with wicked, cool stuff.  He was our idea man, give him a couple minutes and he’d come up with something fun to do.  The treehouse was at John’s house.  John was more worldly, having lived a while in the foreign land of New Jersey.  He was a cartoonist in the coolest way possible … in that, he made really cool cartoons, ones that should be printed in comic books even.  Cartoons that made you think feel, laugh and know that there was more going on that just sock monkeys.  I was the third guy in the treehouse.  I was the guy that laughed at the stuff they found funny even if I didn’t understand it.

Tonight was a critical night for a significant project.  Three of us, Eric, John, and I, got together to finalize the script to a movie.  Not just a movie … THE Movie.  A movie we planned to write, shoot, edit, and release this summer before school started. Eric & I started talking about it as far back as June.  It was now mid-July.  We had been working on it for weeks, nearly months, and we knew if we didn’t knock out the script that night we would never get it done.  The story was complex as it was action-packed.  It followed a young man who learned to be a warrior in his desire to revenge the death of his father.  Where we were going to set ourselves apart was that our movie would have a twist.  In the super original screenplay we agreed this movie would have the warrior attack the enemy, push him to the brink of defeat, and scream “you killed my father” when the villain would say in the most original line ever in movies,  “no, I am your father”.  I think I was supposed to play the older teacher that happened to be named ‘Ben’ or something. 

It had become late, near midnight.  That was common for us.  I think my sleep schedule for that summer was to be in bed by 4AM and wake at Noon.  For years to come, whenever I spent time with John in particular, it meant long nights.  More than once, I remember visiting him at his parent’s house and we would sit in his basement drinking creme sodas until the sun came up, and we had to be somewhere on normal human time.  The groups may change who would meet, but we would talk for hours, we would listen for hours, we would laugh for hours.  I remember hearing great albums or reading great books, or seeing great graphic novels – all for the first time in those late hours with John and Eric, and so many other friends to come over the years.

Back to that night though, as we discussed scenes, dialog, and whether or not we should raid the creme soda stash we had; I got bored and started off to the sky.  By that time, it was about midnight.  The city, for the most part, was quiet – which is not much to say since PdC wasn’t much of a ‘loud’ city to begin with.  From behind me, Eric was doing most of the writing.  John was helping out, but he was starting to struggle a little bit too.  I was the one with the rotten attention span, so I had moved on to whatever would distract me.

From over the top of the houses across the street, I saw a blue light.  Think about if you ever saw a laser show at some cheesy low budget place where they fire the laser through water or a smoke machine.  Think about that laser show where you can almost see every droplet, but you can definitely see the light.  In that hanging fog of summer, soundlessly, this blue light danced and zipped around in the sky.  There was an intoxicating feel to the light, not like a moth to a flame kind of way, but the random nature of it.  There was no rhythm to the light, and the way it broke through the fog seemed to be complex as well.

At first, I was the only one who was watching this, mind you.  At this point of time, the other two were working on the boy warrior gets his father’s lightsaber … erm … sword.  Testing the waters, I thought I would draw attention to the light.

“Hey guys,” I said, “You see that blue light up that way?”

John was the one who said the thing that was floating at the back of my head.  “It kind of looks like a UFO.”

I don’t even know if he looked that long at the blue light, but Eric was the most focused on getting this movie done.  “It’s a bug zapper,” he stated.

Let me just say this … As a forty-something guy writing this, I understand that calling a blue light a ‘UFO’ is a little dumb.  Let’s just throw this out there, when you are a kid … anything can be a UFO.  This is the 80s, mind you, where we get our weird ideas about the world from late-night TV, wild crazy rumors, and on rare occasions the forgotten media called ‘books’.  We were fascinated by UFOs, in the same way, were fascinated by other myths like Bigfoot, Ghosts, and ‘Girls that actually liked us’.  This in all to say, there was a subtly to this discussion.  I didn’t say the blue light was a UFO, but didn’t discount the idea either — in fact, part of the reason I brought it up was that pure fact that the option was there.  John, mentioning it was a UFO wasn’t him jumping on the alien bandwagon, but giving a bit of a joke where we all would have heard the possibility to be there.  Eric wasn’t the skeptic either, he just wanted to get the damned movie script done.

We would have gotten back to work too — if it wasn’t for one thing.  I was the one who noticed it.

I said, “If it was a bug zapper, shouldn’t we hear the bugs be zapped?”

Honestly, after all these years, I can’t be sure exactly how much longer we stayed in that treehouse.  All I can say is that in my memory … we jumped!!!   Literally leaping out of that treehouse, we were on the hunt.  Movie be damned, we were out to find the source of that light.

We were on the hunt for the UFO.

I mean … if it wasn’t a bug zapper, there was only one possibility for it.

Running out to the street, we realized that this wasn’t one or two houses over.  It just takes a little running around you would expect the light to look closer and closer, but that wasn’t the case.  Reaching the corner on foot, simple triangulation told us that it wasn’t near us at all.  We realized that wherever this source was, we would need to move and move quickly.  So we hopped into my car and went driving after it.

Now, it’s worth stopping at this point for another key bit of subtly.  I said “we hopped in the car” as part of this “coming of age story”.

Did I mention this happened when I was old enough to drive?

Yeah, actually, I had been driving for nearly six months.  I was, in fact, a few months from turning 17; just before my junior year in high school.  Eric had his permit, also about to be a junior; in fact, we were sweating over the start of football two-a-days, that was the real crunch to get this movie done.  John’s worldly nature was because he had graduated high school years before this adventure and actually was home from cartoonist college in New Jersey; so John could definitely drive.

Somehow I was the driver.  We moved quickly in the direction where the blue light was flashing.  It’s flickering continued, no more or no less brilliant, just continuous.  What was curious was that we didn’t seem to get any closer to the light – it was a distance off, and whatever was making it had to be fairly brilliant.

If you aren’t from Prairie du Chien, here’s something about the topography.  The area is partly carved by the last ice age and partly carved by the Mississippi river so that the town is nestled in a treelined valley.  Where the hills rise up is mostly limestone, and as such could be quarried.  PdC had a massive quarry at the edge of town.

That’s where the light was coming from.

The blue flashes were flickering from deep inside the quarry floor.  We couldn’t see where specifically, but we couldn’t miss it.  Anyone in the town would be able to see it.  Since we were the only ones on the street at that time of night, it was like we were heading to some undiscovered world.  The long drive up to the quarry was full of questions, excitement, craziness.  We knew there would be a gate, knew it would be hard to get into the quarry, and the one thing we didn’t want was to get caught … by whom, we didn’t know … so we parked the car down the hill in front of some homes.

We climbed the small hill heading up to the gate, keeping low like uneducated ninjas.  The light now was joined by sound.  We heard hissing and burning, seemingly in time with the flashes.  The closer we got the more it seemed like it was coming from a single source.  A small area.  Not a massive object.

We came over a ridge, and we saw it.

There, in the center of the quarry …

A man was welding pipe.

The blue was from the burn of the welder.  In the midnight light, it burned bright enough to blast out across the entire part of town.

Needless to say, we were let down.  More me than anything.  It seemed as though all that hope that we might actually see a UFO ended with something that was earthbound.  We didn’t spend long there, it didn’t make sense watching something that at the end wasn’t all that interesting.  Hindsight should have had me challenging why someone is welding something at midnight, but that wasn’t on my mind.

As we were returning to the car, we came across a problem.   The houses near where the quarry was included in that were owned by a family we knew and knew well.  The father was now outside, smoking a pipe.  It didn’t look like he was there to stop us, nor did it seem as though he saw us, but there would be no way to get to the car without him seeing us.

As we thought about our options, challenged ourselves to come up with a plan, I was the one that just said: “Why don’t we walk down there, get in the car, and leave.”

The other two weren’t keen on this idea and seemed taken aback.  For me, the idea was just simple, and I explained, “We aren’t doing anything wrong.  We aren’t in trouble.  Let’s just go.”

So we did.  We walked to our car, got in it, and left.  The man didn’t stop us.  Didn’t say anything to us later.

And with that, a mystery of life was over.  When you are a kid in a small town, everything you do is under a spotlight – so you are always on the verge of being in trouble.  When you are an adult, you are under the spotlight, but you take accountability for it.

That’s really where the story ends, but that’s what was so defining about it.  There was no UFO.  There was no great mystery.  There was no trouble.

There were three guys who went on a hunt and returned empty-handed.

Albeit to a treehouse.

We finished that movie, and by finished we spend every waking hour the last week before school shooting every bit of film we can – then spending the rest of the time watching what we shot to laugh at it.  Eric stayed loyal to that movie, and about ten years later he gave me a videocassette of the “Untamed World of the Savage”, complete with updated B-roll and original soundtrack.  Before graduating we made other movies like Monkey See Monkey Die.  Monkey See Monkey Die 2.  Monkey See Monkey Die 3 (there was a pattern).  Monkey See Monkey Die 3 the Sequal.  Finally reaching our pinnacle of filmmaking with The Adventures of Mitchey-Poo Man – a superhero film later rebooted into a film called Infinity Wars: Endgame).

That night was really an end of time in many ways.  Before we really got crazy on the movie, I went to a science camp, and when I came back it felt like things were more about the responsibility of finishing the film.  Also, that summer my last in Prairie du Chien.  The following year I started marching Drum Corps, and my summers at home were days rather than months.  That continued until I got a real job as a real grown-up.   

Things changed for Eric too because he got a girlfriend.  The goal we all hoped to achieve and seemed challenged to reach.

John continued on.  We didn’t know it at the time, but John had this knack of taking people under their wing.  Stealing a line from Eric Gilitzer – John built treehouses for kids he never met.  He was the king of the uncool people of the world, and by being around him we were cooler than we thought we could be.  He treated you as a friend, when he was actually your mentor.  He watched out for us, gave us a voice, and showed us things we wouldn’t ever see.  It’s been years since I have seen John.  Much, much longer since I spent nights talking to midnight.  But I can’t think of experiences that made me happier than spending time with him.

I want to say tons more about John, but I struggle to.  It’s hard to summary someone like that.

But I can tell stories.

So this is the one I chose to tell.

Throw Momma From the Train

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When given the chance, I would argue that the greatest movie about amateur authors and movie vehicles is the 1987 classic Throw Momma From the Train starring Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, and Anne Ramsey (as Momma).  It’s not only hilarious, continuously quotable, but nails the pain that a writer can go through when they can’t write  … I mean, is the night hot, is it cold, is it wet or is it dry … or is the Night Sultry.

With that introduction, hello from the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.  As in, I am literally writing this blog while sitting on a train called the Pacific Surfliner northbound from San Diego to Los Angeles (and continuing on to San Luis Obispo).  While it is slightly random that I am writing this blog today, the intent isn’t random, and the outcome is what it’s all about.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I am in the midst of another attempt at NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, an opportunity for thirty days to make writing a priority.  Previously, I sued this activity to actually try to write a novel, but this year it is just about the writing process and to reignite the love I have for creative writing in general.  The visible goal is to reach fifty thousand words in the month of November.  My choice to embrace all things creative this year includes this blog, as well as a mess of short stories and edits.  During NaNoWriMo, there are events set up to help encourage the process.  Most of which, called write-ins, give writers a place to meet, maybe chat about what they do, but mostly to sit in a quiet place and crank out words.

Today’s Write-in offered up was essentially one in three parts.  The second performed in conjunction with a San Diego NaNoWriMo group (who didn’t show up), and it’s bookends happening on the Pacific Surfliner.  In other words, I took a train to San Diego to write for a little bit then rode back all on the same day.

Besides the functionality of the idea, it is a pretty cool way to spend a day.  For those of us committed to NaNoWriMo, we would need significant time on a late November Saturday to make it happen.  In theory, this was a perfect way to set ourselves up a good way to get things done.  The train from LA to San Diego takes about three hours, and with about a three-hour layover, it meant that we could be only somewhat productive and kill it in this program.

In all honesty, I wasn’t productive.  Our train was late, but that really wasn’t an excuse.  The real problem was that it was sensory overload.  Of course, I’ve ridden a train before, just not here in Southern California.  Heck, much of the route was old news to me too, just not from the train.  It was amazing to see things like Angel Stadium in Anaheim, or the towers in downtown Irvine, or the dirigible hangers in Tustin; but from this angle and this direction, it was interesting, all of it.

Then the train hit the coast.  To say the train goes along the coast is pretty on the nose.  For long stretches, the only thing between the train and the ocean is beach sand and short bits of it.  If we weren’t moving at a fast rate, you would see the look of fear on the surfers.  Southbound, during the late morning and early afternoon, swimmers and sunbathers were enjoying the seventy-degree weather.  Northbound out of San Diego, it was the photographers capturing the sunset just out of San Diego, and then the early indications of folks making a camp on the beach.

We told stories about Throw Momma from the Train today, because of its applicability.  Quoting it too.  “Owen doesn’t need friends he has his momma.”  or “I’m going to kill the B, you want something?”  “Could you get me a Chunky.”  or just “OWEN”.  Yet in my head, the thing that keeps sticking there is the look of Larry (Billy Crystal) and he is crashing near the end of patience close to the end of the movie, hovering over a typewriter frustrated that no amount of craziness is going to let him find that part to be productive.  Then it comes.,

Needless to say, I wasn’t productive, but I didn’t care.  I sat back and watched the world go by from the top of a double-decker train car.  The color of the sky changing, the gentle rock of the path mesmerizing, and the challenges of my life put on hold for a few hours.  I am not so rough of shape with NaNoWriMo that I need be frustrated by a less productive day, quite the opposite.  I needed this.  More than anything, I needed this day.

Besides, I have six days left to go.