This is my hometown

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some moment in my adult life, I stopped saying that I was from New York. Technically, I am a New Yorker. I grew up there – specifically, on Long Island – but then I moved to Boston to go to college, and stayed for a long time. When I traveled, if I was asked where I was from, I would say Boston. Through years, jobs, networks, marriage, home ownership, and friendships, Boston had become home.

But New York is, well, New York. And while I don’t always claim it as “home”, I admit to the occasional flash of pride or identification when faced with some of New York’s better-known traits: tell-it-like-it-is honesty, seen-it-all-before worldliness, or don’t-get-me-started frustration. New Yorkers are fun and surprising and resilient as hell. They are the descendants – or at least the inheritors – of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan: the adventurous pirates and practical merchants who brought trade, religious freedom, and representative government to the “New World”.

It was with all this in mind that I returned to New York for a solo vacation. I spent a little more than a week between Long Island and New York City, catching up with family and friends, and rediscovering spots I used to know. I was explaining to a friend one evening that whenever I’m on Long Island, I have a sense of what I call my “ghost life”…a life I could have had, had I chosen to stay there.  In a favorite poem of mine, Thomas Transtromer writes, “Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quite another route”. My sister ship may well be sailing somewhere in the Long Island Sound, but (happily), that is not the ship I am on.

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Central Park. (Not a “hidden gem”, I know.)

While I could never live on Long Island, it can be a great place to visit. Manhattan, too, offers so much to the visitor that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m always thankful for my guides: friends who have lived in NYC for years and have built up a stable of favorite places and neighborhood gems that I’d never find on my own.

There were two big “events” around which my vacation was centered. At the end of the week, I had a cousin’s wedding – the first in many years. I’m one of twenty grandchildren on my father’s side (good Irish-American Catholics), and when the whole family is together, it is something to see. Growing up, I was a shy child and my family overwhelmed me; they were loud, argumentative, overly-affectionate, physically imposing (very tall), and there were just so damn many of them. As an adult, though, I’ve come to love my big, crazy family. And if nothing else, we are really, really good at weddings. It was great to see my cousins and get caught up on their lives.

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My cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yeah, there’s a lot of us.

Mostly, though, we danced, following the example we inherited from our parents and all those family parties at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the grown-ups did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato while we kids goofed around at the edges of the dance floor or hung out in the coat room. A DJ and a few cases of beer and a couple of 6-foot subs were all that was needed for a good time.

 

The other big event of my trip was almost like family, at least to me. Several months ago, my friend Ellen had finally gotten us tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway. Ellen is a true fan, and we’ve now seen Bruce together on several occasions and in multiple countries. I’ve written before about my love of Bruce, about which I am unapologetic. I love the man and his music, and it’s been the longest love affair of my life so far…over 30 years.

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A little blurry, but definitely The Boss.

What else is there to say? I can say that the intimacy of a 900-seat theater can’t compare to Bruce’s big stadium shows, even when I was up close to the stage in the Pit. And to be clear, this is not a concert. It is a performance; a beautiful blending of story and song meant to chart a life, a journey. It is funny and touching and poignant and, at moments, heartbreaking. It is, as a good friend and serious Bruce fan noted, a recognition that while we continue this journey together, there is more road behind us than there is in front.  As Bruce himself said, “I hope that along the way, I’ve provided you with some measure of joy”.  No amount of applause could convey just how much joy this man and his music have given me. And alongside the joy, in equal measure, there’s been comfort, solace, energy, retreat, nostalgia, longing, hope, and celebration. So thanks, Bruce, for a great night at the theater and for a life-long journey that continues on, as long as you’re here, and as long as we’re here.

See you further on up the road.

 

 

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The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”

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As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

Driving around (and around, and around…) Portugal

Portugal may be best known for its fado music, or its deliciously salty bacalhau, or perhaps for the above-average futbol players that it turns out on a regular basis. On a recent long weekend visit to this lovely country, I discovered another defining trait: roundabouts.

We don’t normally drive much on our travels around Europe; we prefer to stay in the city center and use public transportation. This time around, we wanted to see several inland villages and castles, so a car was the best way to go. Since I am the proud holder of an international driver’s license, I was the designated driver. (An aside: has anyone ever been asked to produce this document for anything? A rental car agency, a law enforcement officer, anything? Is an international driver’s license – valid for only six months – even necessary?) Once we were off the highway, we would encounter a roundabout every 800 meters or so. Some had only two or three exits and could have made do with an intersection. In Lisbon, I had to navigate two concentric roundabouts – an inner and an outer rotary, both with multiple exits. I’ll admit that was not my best bit of driving, but I managed. At least twice, I took the roundabout literally, and just kept driving in circles while my co-pilot did some on-the-fly navigation.

There was another unusual feature of this trip: my dear husband planned almost everything. In conversation with other couples, I have found that the responsibilities for planning a trip fall to one person or the other. In our relationship, I’m almost always the planner. In my husband’s mind, if we have a flight and a hotel, a trip is planned. In my mind, we need a rough idea of the transit system, knowledge of some of the major sites, and a dinner reservation for Saturday night. This time, however, he had places he wanted to visit and had mapped out our route for our four days. I got behind the wheel and went where he and the GPS told me.

Our first stop was the Batalha Monastery, which was breathtaking. The construction began in the late 1300s (!) and the architecture reflects the

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The unfinished chapel at the Batalha Monastery

changing styles used over the 150-year construction period. A portion of the church remains unfinished, with the walls opening up to welcome the sky and the weather and the local birds. The Monastery is also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War; the tomb is watched over by guards and by the battered remains of Christ of the Trenches, a statue of Jesus that Portuguese soldiers carried into battle in Flanders. It was a somber and impressive memorial to the losses that Portugal suffered during the Great War.

We drove on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal. We enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant, and discovered that the owner spent more than 15 years living the Netherlands. We also enjoyed the Portuguese price point: a bottle of wine, two entrees, a shared starter and dessert only cost 42 Euro…a big difference from an average night out in Amsterdam. At the recommendation of our hotel concierge (who was also our bartender, although he preferred “mixologist”) we made time in the morning to visit the university. The student prison is no longer in use, but many of the buildings, including the former palace, are still used for formal university ceremonies.

From there, we went to Fatima, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. (For the non-Catholics or the public school kids, you can get up to speed here.)  In spite of my many years of Catholic education, I know Fatima best from the annual Easter airing of the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Every Easter Sunday of my childhood, we’d visit family friends before we went to my grandparent’s house. Every year, we’d arrive at their home near the end of the movie, just in time for the scene when Mary appears in a great ball of light, causing the residents of Fatima to panic and assume that the sun was falling.

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The Basilica at Fatima

Fatima today includes a basilica, an enormous plaza, and a series of chapels where masses are held almost non-stop. There were also some odd elements, including beeswax candles in the shape of different organs or body parts. These were sold as offerings; you could purchase the candle that matched whatever illness you had, and then cast the candle (prayerfully) into a large fire. We also witnessed a number of women making the journey from the far end of the plaza to the Visitation Chapel, following a white marble path that they traversed on their knees. A penance of some kind, I assume, but it’s not my particular brand of Christianity. I don’t think that God is terribly interested in intentional suffering.

We moved on to the walled city of Obidos, not knowing that our interactions with the Virgin Mary were not quite behind us. As we sat in a plaza enjoying an afternoon drink,

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Obidos prepares for the procession of Mary

we noticed that the locals were busy with flowers and greenery and votive candles, decorating the town. We learned that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of Mary’s visitations in Fatima, a statue of Mary had been traveling around Portugal since 2017. That night it was Obidos’ turn to host Our Lady. Again, processions and statues of saints in glass boxes are not really my thing, but the preparations were lovely. The small town was quiet. Every home and shop put out candles or statues of Mary, and flowers lined the road. A sense of reverence and anticipation settled over everyone as the sun set. Eventually, the procession moved silently through the streets and we went on our way.

In the morning we drove to Lisbon and had a relaxed day that mostly involved sitting in the Praça do Comércio, or wandering the very hilly streets. We dove into Portugal’s lesser-known culinary heritage and had dinner at a Goan restaurant, where we were told (in our case, reminded) that vindaloo is originally a Portuguese dish.

The other unusual feature of this trip was that my husband occasionally busted out his beginner Portuguese, which I found impressive and delightful. He ordered our lunch in Fatima with no hesitation, and while I know it can be stressful for him to speak Portuguese, the waiter didn’t notice a thing, and we got exactly what we ordered. Mission accomplished!

This was our third visit to Portugal. Years ago we spent time in Lisbon and the Azores, and more recently we went to Porto with some friends from the U.S. This time, we saw more of the inland villages and the landscape. On every visit, I’m amazed by the diverse beauty of the country and the relaxed and easy attitude of the people. Many travelers overlook Portugal, and that’s their loss. Each time we go, I discover more reasons to return.

The books she never read

It is an odd phenomenon of our modern world that our online lives continue after our earthly lives have ended. Our digital footprints cross more virtual space than our real feet could wish to cover.

I’ve been thinking of this only because I ran into an online ghost recently on Goodreads.com. (An aside: if you’re a reader and you don’t know or use Goodreads, check it out. It lets you track the books you’ve read and find recommendations. You can connect to friends of the real or virtual kind, follow authors, and share reviews and suggestions. I’m not into online socializing; for me, Goodreads is a tool to remember what books I’ve read and what I want to read. More than once, it has saved me from the paralysis I sometimes feel in a bookstore or library, and instead sent me confidently towards the right shelf.)

After adding something to my want-to-read list, I started browsing the long list of titles I’ve already read. I clicked on a Jane Austen book, of which I had only the vaguest memory, and I saw, below my four-star rating of the work, that someone I followed on Goodreads had also read the book. My mom. Who died in August, 2014.

I clicked into her profile. She had joined Goodreads in late 2012 and literally all of her activity on the site had happened on one single day, December 1. On that day she input and rated over 80 books. I suspect she never went back to the site; no additional books had been added, though I’m certain she kept reading up until her death. My friend request to her remains, forever, unanswered.


Few things in my adult life made me happier than when my mother – an exceptionally smart and well-educated woman who was a teacher for decades – finally started reading real books.

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“Can-hider”??

For reasons I never understood as a child, and only vaguely understand now, my mother read trash for years. Years. Hers was a steady diet of Harlequin Romance. If you’re not familiar with Harlequin, their website describes their books as “uplifting escapes featuring real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men.” Most of the books feature these same “relatable” and “desirable” people on the cover in various states of undress. And by chapter seven (it was always chapter seven), all the clothes came off and the prose turned purple, or sometimes blue.

I might not have been too bothered by my mother’s enjoyment of these books, except she was always asking me to get some for her when I went to the library. She never cared if she had already read them; she knew they were essentially all the same. “Just pick out some with good covers”, she would tell me. My pre-teen or teen self would blush with shame as I put those worn paperbacks on the top of my pile of young-adult novels or research books.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom joined a book club a few years before she retired. Suddenly she was asking what I was reading and sharing recommendations of books she enjoyed. Like most book clubs, I think hers was light on the actual book discussion and heavy on the chatting and wine tasting, but I loved that her involvement in it gave us something else to talk about together, and another way to connect.

When I found her Goodreads profile a few weeks ago, I was struck by the overlap between the books she had read and those on my list. I remembered which she had suggested to me. I can see where our tastes come together (Austin again, Ann Patchett) and where they diverge (Chris Cleve, Chris Bohjalian). She was generous with her five-star ratings, where I reserve those only for mind-blowing books I cannot live without.

Then I saw that my mom had marked several books as want-to-read. And my immediate thought was that she will never get to read them. My next thought was: I will.

There were eight in total, but two had ratings indicating that they may have been read, so that left me with just six. (It occurs to me now that it’s possible my mom actually read all of them and just never went back to Goodreads to change the labels. Which perhaps makes my little project even more pointless. But isn’t much of what we do for those we have lost pointless, really? So, ever onward.)

There’s nothing extraordinary about any of the books. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. There’s nothing there I’ve been desperate to read, but neither will any be a struggle. The titles don’t give me some new insight into my mother. I don’t think there is any message from the great beyond waiting for me at the end of these six books. I doubt there’s a lesson to be learned or a revelation coming. I’ll mark the books as read and then cross them off both of our to-do lists. But while I’m reading, the conversation between me and my mom continues.


This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day that can be complicated regardless of the status of your particular mother-child relationship. So I’m going to offer a suggestion, borrowed from the great Mr. Fred Rogers, that we all spend 10 seconds on Mother’s Day thinking “of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” I’ll watch the time.

 

Still here…

You may have thought that the blog had gone dark, as it’s been months since my last update. But no, we’re still here. And today, an early Sunday morning in mid-December, while I sit on the couch and watch the sunrise over Amsterdam, I have finally found a moment to come back and say hello.

Shortly after moving here in 2015, I wrote about the contrast between our Everyday Self and our Vacation Self. I was trying, in those early days, to figure out how the adventurous and daring Vacation Self – who helped get me to Amsterdam – could stay present while the hum-drum activities of daily life got sorted out. Since then, I’ve gotten better at balancing these elements of myself, and I try to maintain my traveler’s energy and curiosity, even if it’s just on my daily bike commute. Still, as we wrap up our third year abroad, it is clear that the Everyday Self is running the show.

As much as I’d like to say that my absence from the blog is due to a whirlwind series of vacations and parties and invitations, that’s not entirely true (although there have been some of each of those things). It’s closer to the truth to say that I’ve been busy, and also lazy, and the blog has fallen victim to both of those states. But no more excuses! Instead, here’s a little run-down of what we’ve been up to:

  • The day we returned from Croatia I started an online certificate program in copy editing. The first class focused on grammar and made me even more of a grammar snob than I was before, because now I can explain in detail exactly why your use of the semi-colon is incorrect.
  • At the same time, I’m working more consistently on the Masters program I started several years ago. I was taking a (very relevant) class in intercultural communication. My final paper was submitted yesterday, and I’ll be starting a new class in early January.
  • Language-learning continues! I’m always trying to improve my French, so I’m doing Skype lessons with a French tutor. I’d rather you just didn’t ask about my Dutch, but if you do, I can now say Ik doe echt mijn best.
  • St EmilionOur annual “Thanksgiving” getaway found us in Bordeaux, where we enjoyed some sunshine, lots of great wine, and perhaps the most delicious thing we’ve ever eaten, thanks to our food tour guide, Virginie.
  • Culture! There is something happening all the time in Amsterdam. Thanks to the John Adams Institute, I attended readings by Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead, both of whom wrote books that I loved (and both of whom were surprisingly funny). I finally went to the Paradiso, one of the more famous music venues in the city, and introduced a new friend to the (music of the) brilliant Josh Ritter. We also spent a freezing hour in the Portuguese Synagogue at a candle-lit concert. The Synagogue, completed in 1675, has no electricity (thus, no heat), but is one of my favorite places in Amsterdam.
  • Friends! We had some unexpected visitors some months ago – old friends from Boston who were on vacation in St. Maarten when Hurricane Irma struck. The only flight they could get off the island was to Amsterdam. It was not the vacation they expected, but we did our best to make it memorable. We were also invited to a 40th surprise party recently, and back in October we had a fun but very rainy and dark adventure in the woods with our friends and their 2-month old baby. (The same friends with whom we went wadlopen…I’m starting to see a pattern here.)
  • Food! I’ve discovered and mastered a couple of new recipes, one that involves buying sausage from a butcher at a local market, which is also my weekly experiment in speaking Dutch. And, thanks to my dear husband, who found a small-batch cookie recipe (four cookies!), I now make near-perfect chocolate chip cookies.
  • Fitness! One can’t eat cookies every night without finding that one’s pants suddenly don’t fit the way they used to. Earlier this year, a Boston friend told me about November Project, and though it took me a few months, I finally found my way to the Amsterdam tribe. I’ve been a pretty regular attendee ever since (even this past Wednesday, when it was cold and icy). If you’re a morning person and you live in a city with an NP tribe, check it out. It helps if you’re ok with hugging strangers, too.
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    Christmas! We have a Christmas tree seller literally outside our front door, so I gave in this year and bought a small, table-top tree. Along with a few strands of lights and some fresh greens, it actually feels more like the holiday season.

So that brings us back to this sunny, lazy, Sunday morning. No papers to write or chapters to read or workouts to do. Just some packing, as we’re heading back to Boston on Wednesday for Christmas. And maybe some cookies to bake? It is the season…

 

Croatia wows at every turn

I’ve noted before the way that some places live large in your imagination, or challenge your preconceived ideas. But every once in a while, you travel to a place about which you have NO ideas, no vision, no expectations. That, for me, was Croatia.

We just returned from a seven-day visit to the southern Dalmatian coast. We were traveling with some friends who are even better vacation-planners than I am. They do their research to find the must-dos and the off-the-beaten-path gems, but they’re still flexible and willing to junk the agenda when needed.

We arrived in Dubrovnik in the early evening and had two nights there. The consistent  advice we got about Dubrovnik was to spend one day, then get out.

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Dubrovnik from the city walls

We followed that suggestion, and spent a full day exploring, walking the city walls and visiting some of the museums. It’s a beautiful place, but even in the low season, it was crowded. Cruise ships dock nearby so the tourists seem to appear in waves, a boatload at a time.

 

Acting on another good piece of advice, we planned to take the cable car to the hill overlooking Dubrovnik and enjoy a sunset picnic. After a few missteps at the grocery store (including failing to weigh our own fruits and getting stuck in a private, no-exit parking lot), we were well-supplied and ready to ride the cable car. We were met at the hilltop by a little rain, but that didn’t slow us down, and the clouds added to a dramatic sunset. IMG_3484 (2)

The next day we drove to Orebic via Ston – another city wall to climb and some oysters to eat – and Matusku Vineyard, where we sampled and purchased a light red that they sold as a “breakfast wine”. By afternoon, we were on a quick ferry to Korcula Island. The small, pedestrian-only Korcula Town was our home for the next two nights. We saw the whole town pretty quickly, but it was peaceful and charming. Still lots of tourist kitsch being sold, but fewer big groups to deal with. Highlights included a cocktail bar on the roof of an old guard tower – the only way to get there was a ladder, and the drinks were sent up on an improvised dumb waiter.

And then it was Friday. I’ll admit that I started the day a little dispirited. Our friends were thinking about going to the beach, but we’re not beach people. I didn’t know what we would do – I felt like I was paying the price for my lack of research and planning, and I worried that we were going to waste a day. (Obviously, just relaxing is not a skill of mine…) Happily, the day turned around quickly when our friends ran into a water taxi captain without much business. Hooray for the low season!

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Farewell, Korcula! See you in a few hours…

For about $26 per person, he offered to take us around to a few islands, with a stop at a beach. Oh, and he knew of a great little family-owned restaurant where we could have lunch. We spent about six hours going from port to port, with the boat all to ourselves, visiting quiet beaches where some of us swam in the clear turquoise waters, eating freshly caught and freshly grilled calamari, soaking in the sunshine and generally loving our lives.

 

After Korcula,we took a three hour ferry to Split, then a quick drive to Trogir, where we spent our final three nights. Trogir is a maze of narrow stone streets and buildings that all look alike, and it took me at least a day and a series of landmarks to be able to find our apartment. It was a great base to explore the area, and although we never made it into Split, none of us felt we missed out. Instead, we visited Roman ruins and later, Klis Fortress. The Fortress was used as the city of Meereen in season 4 of Game of Thrones, and it was fascinating to think about how a GoT-sized production could have fit into the tiny town of Klis, which had one road, two cafes, a post office, and a parking lot that held 15 cars.

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A view of Meereen. Umm, I mean Klis.

We also spent the better part of a day at Krka National Park, which had incredible waterfalls and a beautiful boardwalk path that leads visitors through the park. A little more rain that day, but it just seemed to add to the lushness of the park and the surroundings.

 

Throughout our trip, we were all constantly surprised by the natural beauty of Croatia. I understand that in July and August, the Croatian islands are nearly overrun with visitors. We were lucky to go when we did, as we were able to enjoy things – especially the boat and the beaches – without having to share them! We also wondered at times about Croatia’s ability to absorb – and capitalize on – the boom in tourism. As good Americans, we saw opportunities for towns and sites to make more money and to develop the tourist infrastructure more fully. Perhaps Croatia doesn’t have the interest or the resources to make such investments, and that’s probably for the best. There is a lot to be discovered and enjoyed in this beautiful country, and maybe it’s ok if the whole world doesn’t know that yet…

Farewell, Cassini (and other space stuff)

September is a busy month, and there’s a lot I could share. Like our recent trip to the U.S., a new educational program I’m starting soon, or the Amsterdam canal tour en francais that I won last night. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about space. Not square footage – I’m talking about the universe. Fair warning: if this is of no interest to you, or if you think that space exploration is a waste, you may want to stop reading now, because there’s a lot of space stuff to follow…

I’m a bit of a space geek, which in recent years I credit to Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station. He is a true Renaissance man: a musician, an author and speaker, a fighter pilot, and a professor. (He also has an airport, two schools, and an asteroid named after him.) I started following him on Twitter when he was still at the ISS, sending photos back to earth, making science and space travel both exciting and accessible.

Then, while I was stocking up on e-books for our trip to America, I found the wonderful “Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight” by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Dean is a professional reporter and novelist, and an amateur space junkie. She made it her mission to document the last flights of the space shuttle program. She writes with a mix of wonderment and sadness, grateful for having witnessed the later stage of space travel, but mourning the loss of the national vision and individual courage that brought Americans to the moon. It was a captivating read, in part because Dean is roughly my age, and her memories of the Challenger disaster tracked so closely with mine. The book helped me understand the significance of the Challenger explosion. It shook America’s confidence in NASA and contributed to the end of the shuttle program, but it also communicated a profound message to the many students who had watched the explosion happen on television.  Writing about the report of the investigation of the explosion, Dean explains that the failures it catalogued were not surprising to young people: “We had already come to realize that the adults in charge of making the world run smoothly actually had no idea what they were doing”.

But wait! There’s more. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1 and 2, and if you have the slightest interest in this amazing project, go watch The Farthest. The PBS documentary features the women and men who have spent their careers tracking and translating the images that the Voyager satellites send back to earth. The ambitious  “Grand Tour” of the outer planets revealed moons, massive storms, plumes and craters, giving us a glimpse of our solar system and beyond. And if that’s not interesting enough for you, both Voyager satellites carry a golden record with messages in over 60 languages, music, natural sounds, and data that an advanced civilization could convert into diagrams – a global greeting card from earth.

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Jupiter Great Red Spot (Photo credit: NASA/JPL).

Just four years ago, on 12 September 2013, Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space, and became the first man-made object to do so. What I remember most about this event is the pleasure of adding the word “heliosphere” to my vocabulary. The Voyager satellites are expected to send data back to earth for another 3-7 years, and then they will continue to travel, silently, long after there is anyone left who remembers them.

Then there is Cassini. In about 15 hours from now, Cassini will end its 20-year journey in dramatic fashion. The NASA website says it best: “Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini

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Saturn, Approaching Northern Summer (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

into the planet.” In anticipation of this end, Cassini began doing a series of dives several months ago, passing between Saturn and it’s rings. Tomorrow’s Grand Finale will see Cassini make a final approach to Saturn, dive into the atmosphere, and eventually burn up.

Now that you’ve put up with all this space talk, I have to admit that it’s not the “how” of space travel that interests me – much of the science is well beyond my understanding – but the “why” of it.  The “how” is mostly about the technical questions: Will it work? For how long? Are our calculations and assumptions correct? Will we get any data back? What can we learn? Once those are resolved, the “why” follows: What will we find? What are we hoping for? Are we prepared for what we might discover?

Many of the people working on space projects do so with the understanding that their project may not get off the ground. And if it does get into orbit, if it goes as planned, they may never see how it ends, as with Voyager. Or they may, in the case of Cassini, purposely and beautifully engineer the destruction of their spacecraft.  These possibilities – or more accurately, the acceptance of these possibilities – fascinate me. It’s the legacy of the first astronauts, those brilliant and handsome young fighter pilots who took on an impossible challenge, some later admitting that they thought the odds of survival were, at best, 50/50. They accepted risk and uncertainty because it paled in comparison to the magnitude of what they might accomplish: going to space.

So if you’ve read this far, you should really head over to the NASA image library, or learn about the Cassini team’s tradition of Friday breakfast, or get to know the three new crew members who arrived at the International Space Station just two days ago. And I’ll sit here a little longer and marvel at the fact of space travel and the wonder of it all. That, as Margaret Lazarus Dean put it, “completely normal-looking middle-age people are currently floating in space somewhere overhead. There is simply no getting used to this.”