Houston there is no problem- how to be ground control AND the astronaut

Space launchBeneath the noise of the coffee shop David Bowie sings.

He thinks his spaceship knows which way to go.

As I stand in line for my English Breakfast tea the barista admits that he front loads the playlist with his own choices and I see him in silent song daring Major Tom to leave the capsule.  I think about the amount of faith that is required for bravery. Major Tom needs to step outside his tin can to see the difference in the stars. He needs to trust ground control, himself and the entire universe.

Back at my sticky table I try to imagine 100,000 miles. It is unfathomable. And at the same time it is absolutely within reach. When I stop focusing on the literal fear of heights and vast space I thing about traveling to figurative heights. On any given day we are all both the ground control and the astronaut. Ground control focuses on protein pills, ignition, and circuits.  But it is the astronaut who floats in the most peculiar way.

When I read my boys “A Wrinkle in Time” I watch this transition happening. For the first few minutes they are ground control. Oliver stops my reading to try to make sense of the multi dimensions.  Leo offers his predications about what will come next. Eventually they give themselves over to the story. Instead of tracking facts and trends they are unmoored, left to fly away into the story.

This weekend we finally got them bikes that fit. As they check their helmets and practice their handsignals before they leave our driveway they are focused on safety. I hope that careful riding remains their focus, but somehow when they return I see the flush in their faces and I know that they achieved launch. I have mixed feelings about their mixed ride. I want them safe. I want them alive. Yet I also want them to live.

Despite the name ground control is never actually in control. Just look far above the moon at Major Tom floating in his tin can. Yet somehow, with nothing left to do, we can feel very still. Watching the barista turn dials and push buttons on his fancy coffee machine I see that at the same time he is lost in his music. He is both in control and floating above it all.Sometimes it is good be the astronaut. Sometimes it is good to be ground control. It is wonderful for us that we don’t need to choose.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you “Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”

-David Bowie


Echoes- nothing really ends

Woodpecker sound echoes
This woodpecker doesn’t look as loud as mine.

For weeks I have been woken by a woodpecker. Sadly, not my husband’s. It sounds like construction inside my head, its knocking not quite rhythmic making it hard to sort out neatly into dreams. The sound echoes off of the strange slants of my bedroom ceiling entering my consciousness the way the bird enters the ailing tree.

Awake earlier than we want my husband holds my hand and gives it a light squeeze. I feel a rush of pain and remember the injury I sustained rolling around on the floor at a dinner party. It was a post season celebration of Destination Imagination, and the parents had got to act out our engineering challenge of building a paper tower. If it sounds confusing it was. After failing to build a tower we then needed to play the roles of paper and paper clips in real life. As a method actor in childhood I understood the mindset of my crumbled paper and threw myself into the part. Body folding in ways it shouldn’t I tossed myself aside flinging out my arms in utter desolation. Doing so I whacked the top of my hand on a coffee table and sustained some sort of odd acting injury. If you think I was the weirdest adult in the room I have video evidence that this is not true. I don’t quite know how a post it tower can be phallic, but acted out by 40 somethings in some way it could be. Who knew that the reverberations of two years of our children working and playing together would result in one of the worst videos ever. Or that a handful of months later I would still be nursing my hand.

Echoes of placeThis weekend I spent two days in Boston at my mother’s retirement dinner and symposium. Amongst academic talks deans and students and professors came together to express their appreciation for the way she shaped their careers and their lives. From my pre teen years I have teased my mother, picked at her quirks. At its best my ribbing  was affection, its worst destruction. She is still often a punch line and material for my writing, as well as my therapy. This was a wonderful weekend as a string of toasts that revealed to me the richness of her work, and patience and dedication she was able to show her field, her colleagues and herself. At the end of the day she told the story of arriving at Radcliffe at 17 and how she grew up at Harvard.


I grew up here – and as it turns out have grown (almost) old here. I can trace the stages of my life in paths and buildings. I knew from the moment I heard my first Stanley Hoffmann lecture in “War” in Emerson that I wanted to do this. I was an undergrad in Social Studies at a moment when every seminar turned into an anti-Vietnam teach-in. Each moment of my life has its physical spot. Studying for exams in a bathing suit on the roof of Barnard Hall; my dissertation defense in the basement of the faculty club, my first love affair in Winthrop House, the yard where I pushed Anna’s stroller, classrooms where I struggled to deliver my first lectures, and then after laptops, invented ways to keep students’ attention. In this list of memories tied to Harvard there is the exhibition of my husband’s collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks at the Sackler shortly before his death.

I can say these grounds and faces were for me what the associations of home town are for others. I’m not alone in this. It’s bizarre, I know, but I’ll quote Hegel on the Greeks: “Their grand object was their country in its living and real aspect; — this actual Athens… these Temples, these Altars, this form of social life…these manners and customs.” This geography, its concrete particulars, is identity.

Her life will go on and so will Harvard. Yet they will forever feel the echoes of each other.

the end of the echoes of musicKilling time at the airport for my flight home Prince’s “I would die 4 u” played at 9 am. The soundtrack of my coming of age was made up of Price and David Bowie. This has been a tough year for magical musical men. My birthday present from my first serious boyfriend was the Sound and Vision Box set, complete with a laserdisc a decade before I owned a DVD player. I would open the box to stroke the disc, looking at its unmarred circle imagining us married and playing it together when the technology finally caught up to Bowie’s vision. None of that came to be. But the narrative arc of Ziggy Stardust brought music closer to my main medium of storytelling.  I superimposed my own risks and adventures with the man who stole the moon. In the airport I am literally moved by Prince’s song. I am bouncing, in some ways more and other ways less than I did my freshman year in college. It was the song I blared to wake me from the stupor of inorganic chemistry. There was no way to zone out when I was getting pumped up. My mind is blown that there will be no new music from these men. But it is full of the echoes of the sound (and vision) of what they have created and I have lived.

There it is again. The woodpecker is only searching for breakfast, but it is changing my outlook. More than that it is eating away at the tree, making it less stable with each passing morning. The marks it makes will never leave.

Through insult and injury, sound and vision, working and retiring, acting and living, nothing is ever completely over. It all echoes.