Science is a Work of Art … and a Headache Full of Math

I have a love-hate relationship with physics.

I love the way it sounds as a word. It’s a pleasurable one to say—like cupcakery, flibbertigibbet, or I’ve just won the lottery.

Okay, that last one is not so much a fun word to say as it would be a fun phrase to shout.

But “physics” is lovely to pronounce.

I also love that it works the way people expect it to—airplanes alight, bowling balls roll, people don’t fall off when on the upside-down part of Earth’s rotation—stuff like that.

I appreciate—nay, love—that so many people on this planet understand the science that studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

But what I hate … is that I’m not one of them.

It’s not that I haven’t tried, because I have. I really have. As in sat down, read books, attended lectures, asked questions, did experiments. All that jazz. Definitely not half-hearted attempts to crack the codes of complex concepts.

It was effortful work.

But it just didn’t stick.

It never does, and I feel entirely deflated with the results.

Currently, I’m working on an art installation project with someone whose background is both fine arts and engineering. We have a massive canvas which we’ve agreed to apportion and parcel between us, settling upon no theme other than some sort of Venn diagram of shared experiences.

My first outlined section involves a three-headed snake, slithering downward through the seven levels of celestial existence, depicting the metaphysical realms of deities and including the classical planets and fixed stars.

It’s pretty.

His is a physical representation of irrational numbers. It is lines both curved and precisely angled.

It is math.

I said, Can you see how mine shows the concept of the divine wrestling with—

I get it. He broke in, nodding. I’ve studied religious antiquity through art. It’s pretty straightforward. Now can you see how mine is the answer?

I squinted at the canvas. The answer to what?

To everything.

Everything? I echoed.

Yes. To the universe, to space, time, you, me, the existence and meaning of everything your mind can conjure.

My mind was not conjuring. My mind had stumbled to a cracking fat halt.

I don’t get it, I said, feeling a hot creeping blush move across my face. Where’s the formula part?

I received a look of incredulity. He pointed to the canvas. It’s right there. Where the lines and arcs intersect and join. It’s all present. It’s simple. It’s elegant. It’s beautiful.

He moved across the canvass, sweeping his hand from one point to another. Five or six minutes passed where words like “thermodynamics,” “quantum mechanics,” and “electromagnetism” were meshed with phrases like “the laws of motion” and “Bose-Einstein state of matter,” and “Are you truly not getting this?”

It made me worry. Again.

As I am currently on my way to see my daughter in her place of work. It’s a place that makes spaceships.

And everyone there comprehends all the words and phrases of physics to a point so deeply understood they can be trusted with millions of tax dollars that gets sent up to planets we all hope might one day hold a few Starbucks.

Her colleagues are the kind of people who could easily look at my art partner’s portion of our canvas and say, Yeah, man. That’s so beautiful.

They are the kinds of people who have pi tattoos, and blow-up dolls of Newton sitting a desks at work, and regularly visit therapists for anger management issues related to Flat-Earthers.

Chloe is, understandably, a little bit nervous, as in the past, when touring the facilities that educated her to qualify for her current place of employment, I apparently asked questions that left the occasional professor befuddled and giving her a second sideways assessment as to whether she may have been adopted.

Those questions usually involved time travel and multiverses—which at those moments were, in my defense, valid and being discussed by true blue scientists and not stripped from episodes of Star Trek.

And it’s not like I was asking whether all the orbiters and rovers we’ve been sending up were going to be interfering with my monthly horoscope.

Besides, I much prefer divination by means of flour. There is nothing more accurate than aleuromancy, as Chinese fortune cookies have yet to let me down.

So as I sit in my assigned seat on a fancy flying machine that surely neither Newton nor Galileo could have imagined, I am left staring out the window and wondering what I could possibly add to the art installation that could stand up to “the answer to everything,” whether I would find anything comprehendible when shortly visiting Chloe’s spacefaring factory, and whether my luggage would arrive at my final destination.

Pulling out my daily ration of much relied upon soothsaying, I cracked open my rice cookie and read today’s fortune:

A closed mouth gathers no feet.

Surely, this could be voted as a potential fourth law of motion.

I will consider it.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

An Address to a Girl in a Dress (and a Cap and Gown)

Dear Reader,

With permission from my daughter, I’m sharing my “personal commencement speech” given to her following her college graduation. I imagine it is kindred to a million other parental letters. But she is my kin and my one in a million. 

Plus, I really needed an essay for my monthly blog post.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Chloe,

I’m sure by now a million people have said, Congratulations.

So I won’t.

Because I don’t like being like a million other people. And neither do you. Which is why I like you so much.

I’m lucky that way because I could have birthed a child who wanted to be on American Idol, or who wished to run a gelato shop, or who believed working as an accountant for the IRS could be a safe and super fun job.

But I did not birth that child. Instead, I landed a girl who rolled her eyes so often with impatience in her formative years, one of those times she was looking skyward actually revealed something that held her gaze. A star? An airplane? A celestial thought?

We may never know. The point is, is that everyone has vision. Whether through working eyeballs or simply one’s focused imagination, we all have some sort of direction. Yours just happened to be up.

Which must have been really frustrating for you for over sixteen years of schooling, as in order to achieve a position in that field where everyone else is looking skyward, you spent most of it looking down. At textbooks and exams.

But you’re finished with all that right now.

For about a minute.

I know. That was an awful thing to say. Especially to someone who still carries around the blood shot eyes of a student who just days ago was pulling her umpteenth all-nighter.

But it’s the truth. Because …

Life is school.

It is a giant campus with a million different teachers and a gazillion annoying classmates who are repeatedly flunking and succeeding right alongside you. It is countless classes where the only scores given are pass and fail, and you get to determine what your GPA represents.

Money in the bank?

Title at work?

Rovers landed?

You decide.

Yes, there are still exams. Yearly, you have a giant pain-in-the-ass one which the government insists you show up for, but it’s not as bad as it seems because you’re granted a cheat sheet—they’re called accountants.

The medical ones are some you start attending with greater frequency—and again, thankfully this is “group effort” problem solving, so rest easier in that department too.

There are the courses you enroll in that instruct you on home ownership, insurance policies, contract negotiation, and credit card debt. These are all core classes you’d best take a few notes in, but there are others—the humanities electives—where you can sit back and relax, maybe doodle in the margins.

There is, and never will be, a syllabus for yoga.

Likely there will be some mind-blowing field trips—maybe Mount Olympus, maybe Olympus Mons. Who knows? But it’s likely with your itch to run, your feet will tread across paths old and new, and you’ll Snapchat your way across every one of them.

When we, as a society, look out across the world at the sliver of individuals, the percentage of our population, who end up having truly amazing jobs, we usually first think about how lucky they are.

In truth, or after a moment of Googling just what amount of effort goes into getting that job, we realize that no, they’re not lucky—they’ve worked their backsides off to get to that place.

Okay, and yes, they’re lucky.

But more important, we’re lucky.

We get to benefit by tucking up close and drafting off your efforts, positioning ourselves within your slipstream as you push aside the rough winds in front of you. If you do it well enough and deftly, you may be awarded a few plaques or trophies with your name etched across a plate of gold. But those recognitions usually only happen at work. No one is going to erect a statue in your honor for cleaning out the cat litter, but it’s equally important work, and occasionally lives or marriages depend upon it.

I will miss this last past phase of your life, the video chats where you don’t want to chat, but instead simply want some actual parent to be your parental controls on all things technologically distracting. So we both work in silence companionably. Or where you text photos of your meals, or your dress, or your clean laundry, or proof the cat is still alive so that someone can give you a faraway hug of approval for those independent efforts. Those reach-outs will lessen, and I will mourn them. But I’ve cherished them.

Every single one.

So as I’m not prepared to offer you congratulations, maybe the better thing, the more fitting thing, is to say, “Welcome.”

Welcome to the new hallways, the bigger classrooms, the special buses, and to the many lounges that hold some kick-ass club meetings. It’s going to be great. And hard. But mostly great.

Maybe I’m wrong. About the start of it all. Maybe as a little kid the first thing that left an impressionable mark on you was the red clay of Virginia beneath your tiny bare feet, and when you finally glanced up, you recognized the kinship of a sister planet’s soil.

The call was strong, and so are you.

Welcome here, honey.

Make yourself at home.

Love, Mom

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

NASA: Definitely not a Waste of Space

“So how ‘bout that whole folding of the fabric of time thing?” I asked when it was finally my turn in the long line of people forming a queue.

“I beg your pardon?” an elderly NASA engineer asked, his two furry white eyebrows fully sewing together in the middle of his face.

“Time travel,” I clarified. “You don’t have to keep the research bits a secret from me. I’ve got a badge and everything. I’m allowed to be here.”

“MOTHER!”

I felt a sharp yank at my elbow and was spun out of the line and pushed toward the conference hall’s exit doors.

I heard the engineer ask the assistant at his side to find new batteries for his hearing aid as he thought they were going a bit dodgy.

I detached the sharp claw around my arm and glanced over at my daughter’s face. It was a little more red than I thought healthy—like the color a kid’s face turns when they’ve been holding their breath after you tell them they’re absolutely going to eat every last bit of liver on their dinner plate thank you very much.

And then they explode.

Or faint.

Chloe could have gone either way.

“I thought I told you I was going to vet each one of your questions to panelists,” she said, crisply.

“Yes. You did say that. But you were busy talking to someone who was showing you how to cure cancer in space—or something like that—and I thought that info was too valuable to interrupt.”

She gave me her best oh my god I can’t believe we’re from the same genetic material face and walked down the corridor toward a display of spacecraft materials—textiles that could absorb great gobs of angry heat.

I’d need to make it up to her. I was here—at NASA’s 100th centennial celebration and symposium—as her plus one. I’d been given access to all the talks, lectures, panel discussions, power point slideshows, and live beam-ins from the ISS.

I was meeting and listening to some of the greatest scientists, engineers, and administrators of the great big NASA family—a family Chloe has been dating for the last four years—and I’d better not be the black-socked and sandled potted uncle who blows it for her by showing up at the posh annual family BBQ asking where I can set up the bouncy castle I’d just rented for the event.

She wants a large, shiny ring from these people. I should really help her get it.

So I sat quietly for the next many hours. A full two days of many hours. I listened to people explain what had been taking place the last one hundred years in labs and clean rooms—that part I called history—and what would  be taking place in the next one hundred years but mostly on spaceships and extraterrestrial terra firma—that part I called magic.

Human exploration, space technology, mission objectives, and interplanetary sleuthwork—a bazillion talks showing what happened to the lecturer when someone made the mistake of saying to them, “Betcha can’t make this happen.”

Think again.

It’s the hair-raising results when smart people get bored and have access to wind tunnels.

Now, I’m not going to say that every single speaker had me at the edge of my seat, wide-eyed, and breathless. There were plenty of rumple-suited, mumbling lectors who lost their places or couldn’t figure out how to work a laser pointer. Moments where I would turn to Chloe and accusatorily whisper, “That’s not a real word,” or request that she explain to me in one sentence or less how nuclear fusion for space travel would work.

But the videos were definitely thrilling bits of rousing drama. In fact, I’m pretty sure that NASA uses one guy from Hollywood to do all the musical score work because all of it was EPIC. Like academy award winning musical compositions. I felt heart-melting stirrings in my soul when seeing a scientist simply unfold some foil. It could have been what he was having for lunch, but I didn’t care. I just want to see if eventually Ridley Scott will ask Matt Damon to play that guy on the big screen.

At the end of the symposium was the massive NASA gala. Tuxedos, sequins, fish and chicken, politicians, musicians, astronauts and journalists. The early computers, the young engineers. The daring old stories and the futuristic visions.

It was a room filled with people who had done great things, and with people who dreamed of doing great things.

It was a room that held the remarkable past and the unfathomable futures. It was filled with an electric energy, the promise of possibility, a gritty determination.

And waiters.

Yeah, it was filled with a lot of waiters too.

I thought that by the end of the night I had done my utmost to behave. To absorb the sagacious words of pioneers at the frontiers of space. I’d kept my hand at my side and simply remained fixed on their words, their proposals, their data, and their accomplishments.

I did not chase people into the bathrooms to ask burning questions about Mars, or the moon, or asteroids, or multi universes.

Except for that one guy, but he hardly counts. Because Chloe doesn’t even know about him, so mums the word on that bit, capisce?

I thought after all my good behavior we could finally go home and find some real sleep, as we’d been crashing in a hotel room whose air conditioner sounded like a gargantuan Kitchen Aid blender stuck on liquefy—or annihilate—samey samey.

But then the gala’s emcee made one last announcement before dismissing us for the night. “We’ve got a surprise for you! There’s a dance party downstairs—a DJ, a sparkly ball, big speakers, and a lot more alcohol. Go have fun NASA!”

I saw Chloe turn to me with a face that displayed the happiness a farm hound shows when he’s spotted a field full of cowpie patties.

“NO,” I said firmly.

“You owe me,” she said.

So we went.

And now I am absolutely positive time travel exists, because I would put a big ole bet that most of these scientists and engineers wouldn’t want any of their dancing film footage to get out into the public—and if there was a threat of doing so, they’d travel back to this event and erase it.

It was like watching colts try to stand immediately following birth.

Okay, to be fair, a couple people knew some archaic dance moves, but seriously, no one should be doing the Robot anymore, or the Running Man, and especially not the Sprinkler.

Except I’m going to make one allowance: there was one move they were all exceedingly good at.

The Moonwalk.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be damn proud of a century’s worth of work. Seeing their past accomplishments was a trip back in time I was honored and astonished to experience.

 

But hearing about their future? Nope. I don’t want to skip over one single second of it.

Congratulations, NASA.

~Shelley

 

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Foot-Slogged Journey from Zero to Hero

According to Google, the definition of the word hero is:

A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A warrior, a knight, a lionheart.

Or we could go with Google’s second definition:

Another term for a submarine sandwich.

I am surrounded 24/7 by heroes. Their voices ring in my ears in pitches that reveal their age and dialects that unmask their country of origin. Occasionally, their speech is so foreign to my mind, I find I must consult etymological dictionaries to make sense of what they say.

Most of these heroes I conjure up myself.

It’s a writer’s process that involves a mixed bag of tools: a few shovels and brushes for the archeological dig to uncover the bones, or a hammer and chisel to chip away at “whatever isn’t the angel,” or, my favorite, the ability to sit with a mental stereogram—where you purposefully lose the eye’s traditional and automatic ability to focus—and then suddenly, mind-blowingly, find a new depth of perspective.

Something magical emerges from something quite ordinary.

I’m used to following these heroes through some journey.

We meet the hero. Something happens to him that forces him to change—despite the fact that he is resistant to change. He’s drawn into some crisis. Things go to hell in a handbasket for a brief period of time. Some metamorphosis occurs, impacting our guy and allows him to respond to the call. And then …

BANG!

He saves the day.

Amen.

I am drawn to these people like a needle pointing north and with the same urgency as when anyone cracks open the door of an oven filled with chocolate chip cookies.

My above definition is a super-simplified explanation of a complex, universal storytelling form called …

The Hero’s Journey.

(Please note: In my head, anytime this phrase is said aloud, its audio quality is enhanced by some impressively epic reverb.)

According to many who’ve studied the great stories of mythology and the broad swath of tales that fit beneath the umbrella of the monomyth, there are a few things necessary in each of these sagas:

A situation, a protagonist, an objective, conflict and disaster, and very important—an opponent.

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My list is by no means complete, but just an “around about” example to further my unfolding tale.

But the hero I’m going to tell you about is not one of mythology or conjured up by my writerly imagination. She is a regular Joe. A flesh and blood body. A mortal, a maiden, and amusingly, mine.

Okay, that last part may no longer really be true, as she leapt from the nest two years ago, but the ownership part isn’t the important bit. It’s the journey. It’s one I was given the privilege to watch close up and from all angles.

You know those first words we record as proud parents in the biblical baby books of unprecedented infant achievement? This is found in hers:

Airpane.

Yeah, not a typo.

One tiny fist with one tiny finger extended upward and continuously, unrelentingly, irritatingly pointed toward the sky. One tiny mouth was forever uttering what two tiny eyes could see and two tiny ears could hear.

Airpane.

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Rare was the day when I had the time to track each one of her identifications—and I certainly did not possess the keen eyesight and impressive auditory range that she seemed to have been born with—but I breezily verified each one of her chirps with some form of response like,

“Wow, good for you, Toots. Keep your eye out for more.” Or,

“Clever girl. How many is that this morning? One hundred? One thousand? I’ve lost count.” Or,

“Okay, I get it. You were a pilot in a previous life. I’ve got to fold laundry.”

When my daughter was about five, two common career themes emerged and spilled out into her everyday life. She was heavily into deciding between becoming a ballerina or an astronaut.

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One day, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her. She was going to have a few follow-up booster shots for some prior vaccinations. Knowing her intense hatred and fear of needles, I tried to plan something fun to follow that doctor’s appointment that would keep her mind off of the wretched shots:

We were going to have lunch … WITH AN ASTRONAUT IN TRAINING!

A family friend was delighted to hear of my daughter’s early interest in space and eager to encourage her tiny spurts of enthusiasm. It was exactly what we needed to follow that pediatrician’s appointment—which was …

Awful.

She hid, she screamed, she threw tongue depressors at the man as if she was barricading herself inside an ice cream truck with nothing but popsicles to use as weapons. She told him she was going to hunt him down in the middle of the night.

Yeah, it was appalling.

Anyway, back at lunch, our astronaut friend began to fill my daughter’s head with all the details involved in becoming “an astronaut,” and at one point launched into the myriad medical tests and examinations one must undergo in order to determine if one is even physically fit enough for space.

My daughter inquired about inoculations.

“Yep,” he said. “Plenty of needles.”

She then turned to me and asked, “Do ballerinas need shots?”

Well, I thought we were finished with our miniature hero’s journey into space and that life would finally return back to normal. I would no longer have to feign interest in her long conversations about the complex water systems aboard the International Space Station which provided astronauts drinking water made from a filtered mixture of recycled shower water, old astronaut sweat … and pee.

Except I was wrong.

Because every day that space interest grew. Whether she was curious about rocket fuel, or space shuttle tiles, or the physics of learning how to fly.

At one point, she said to me she would happily accept a one-way ticket to Mars if it was available and she qualified, and then gave me permission to give away everything in her bedroom to Goodwill.

“What?” I said. “You’re still interested in space?”

Apparently, this was the equivalent of asking, “What? You’re still interested in breathing air?

She struggled with physics like it was some Minotaur she’d regularly sword fight with each night before bed.

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She spent countless, frustrating hours with her teachers in order to understand—not memorize—the facts in front of her.

One of her teachers—a Japanese physicist, whom I swear was the prototype for Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid—threw countless roadblocks in her way.

“Why waste your time with space?” he’d ask her. “Space is for boys. Dolls are for girls.”

She would march from his classroom and turn to face him just before leaving and flip him the bird.

He, on the other hand, would smile with smug contentment after she left, knowing he’d lit a fire beneath someone’s nettled knickers.

Word had it, that this man had come to America with the impassioned notion that the world needed more girls in math.

But apparently, he didn’t want ones that crumpled when facing adversity.

Walking into her bedroom was a bit like being a detective who opened the door belonging to a guy whose crazed neural network encompassed all four walls of the freakishly alarming one room apartment he lived in. Where equations were sprawled across every square inch of space, and yarn connected one spot to another, making the entire room feel like it was a massive, but not yet completed, macramé pot holder.

Understanding that this was a language I would never have the codes to decipher, I’d offer up encouragement from the safest quarters of my own comfort zones—stories.

Seeing her bleary eyes each morning, and the small, but growing bald spot patches where she would regularly grasp at fistfuls of hair—I first assumed out of frustration, but after taking into account the amount of information she was trying to consume, I came to believe it was in an effort to expand skull space—I would offer up my suggestions. I didn’t want her to give up.

“Why don’t we head to the library and check out some super stories about space adventure? Stories like Aliens Love Underpants, or The Martian Chronicles, or Ender’s Game, or (most important) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

But with each book I brought home and encouraged her to read, they ended up buried beneath printed out specs of some new rocket booster. Or NASA flight mission reports. Or CDs that declared, you can learn how to speak Russian and Chinese in under ten minutes a day!

She didn’t want to read a space story.

She wanted to be a space story.

Countless times in this child’s life, I’ve stepped back and looked at the path she was traveling. It’s been riddled with potholes, roadblocks, detours, and burnt bridges. But it has also been abundantly sprinkled with mentors: sensei sword masters, Yodas, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores. Guides who have handed her a sword, a light saber, a wand.

Repeatedly realizing how out of depth I was, the best I could hope to do was step out of her way. I was not going to be the antagonist in my very own child’s heroic journey. I did not want to be her conflict, her disaster, her apocalyptic Death Star.

But I could keep her sword shiny, her lightsaber full of batteries, and her wand connected to Wi-Fi at night whilst she slept.

I looked for the places I belonged in her story. Many times I found it was on the sidelines taking notes. It’s what we writers do to nudge a story into place. It’s what we cheerleaders do to rally our heroes. It’s what we parents do to encourage our children.

Today, this child of mine studies aerospace engineering at MIT and is in the middle of her first summer internship with NASA.

It is a beautiful thing to realize that Thank God, you did not get in the way of someone else’s dream and hopefully, instead, pruned back the prickly path a tiny bit to make the journey a little bit easier.

I celebrate both of my children’s achievements as they come, and tell them about the importance of embracing each one of their failures along the way as well. There is no rising without falling.

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Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we may bring back the bandages and antibiotic ointments that come with life’s splashdowns and spills. It is all part of the hero’s journey and there are no shortcuts around facing your dragons.

Today I am so happy for this child I find myself nearly bursting with joy. I seriously just want to take a bite out of her.

I’m guessing she will taste something like a submarine sandwich.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Uncivilized Wildlife: One Big Bloody Battle

I’m a creature of habit.

A couple of them I like and have come to depend upon—like sleeping, eating, and general brain function reliability.

One or two have stuck around that I’m not terribly fond of—like hitting the hay too late, forgetting where I’ve parked the car, and stalking Neil deGrasse Tyson in hopes that he’ll change his mind and finally decide to co-author a scientific paper with me on the plausible objectives of time travel through human-sized, uncooked rigatoni noodles.

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I think he’s afraid he’ll have to do most of the authoring. But I’ve assured him I will pull my weight. I will keep our coffee cups filled. I will keep all the pencils sharpened. And I will do my best to man our Twitter page and keep it filled to the brim with pithy, clever snippets that reflect our opinions on all things hyperspace bypass related.

This bad habit could turn into a big bonus for the both of us.

My creatures are creatures of habit too.

The cat is awake to eat.

And then isn’t.

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My hound has a slightly more varied routine, but he too keeps a predictable schedule, which is why at around 11:30 last night I was surprised to see him wander into my bathroom while I was finishing my evening ablutions.

“Shouldn’t you be outside making your last security rounds?” I asked him with a mouthful of toothpaste.

Ran into a tiny snag.

“Why are you bleeding all over my bathroom floor?”

The tiny snag had teeth.

“This does not bode well for my precious Italian faux marble tiling,” I said, wondering if the pooling blood would stain.

A little help here?

I sighed. “Go get me a bucket of bleach and a wire brush.”

A Band-Aid would suffice.

“And if I go into that housekeeping cupboard tomorrow and notice you’ve stolen all my camphor moth balls again, there’ll be a reckoning.”

I had a stuffy nose.

“Use the Neti Pot!”

And so it went.

I cleaned him up and noted the two deep puncture wounds on one side of his hind leg and the graze of teeth marks on the opposite side.

“Who did this to you?”

I didn’t catch his name.

“No. I mean what animal did this to you?”

Something massive that obviously hadn’t had dinner yet.

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“Well, it’s bedtime. No more prowling about tonight—got it?”

The look I got in return was one that suggested I had an IQ equal to that of tapioca pudding. We shuffled off to bed. But sadly not to sleep.

As is wont to happen round about this time of year, the whippoorwills make their annual appearance and settle in around the woods and meadows surrounding the house. From far away, they offer a dreamy, somnolent tune, echoing through the cool spring nights.

Sitting beneath your window, they are shrill, piercing, and an aberration of nature–as anyone would attest they surely have three lungs.

For thirty minutes I did my level best to ignore the siren song which was truly much more of an honest to God siren and less so a beautiful, mythical sea creature calling me out to the crashing waves and hidden jagged rocks.

I got up, opened the porch door and encouraged it to take its evening serenade elsewhere. “For the love of all things holy, I’m begging you, PLEASE BE QUIET!

I soon gathered that the bird balladeer and I did not speak the same language, or perhaps he interpreted my hand clapping as applause. He simply relocated to the space beneath another window.

The following thirty minutes was difficult to breathe through as I had my head beneath two pillows.

It was clear this bird was hoping to make it onto the Avian Olympic team and that his training facility was any perchable place within 12-24 inches of my house walls. The incessant aria, the rigorous, methodical whooping warble was worthy of a gold medal for effort. And a twelve gauge for the likeability factor.

I got up, went to the window and gave it a couple of good solid thumps. When this achieved nothing, I opened it and began shouting into the night. “I know where you live! I will not be fooled into looking skyward! I know you’re all ground nesting birds!

Silence.

I looked at the dog who was still tending to his wounds. “You’re wel—”

WHIPPOORWILL, WHIPPOORWILL, WHIPPOORWILL!

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And then there were three.

This bird had called in for backup. The flock now positioned themselves on all sides of the bedroom walls that faced nature. It was a trio of torturous, ill-timed tunes.

I groaned and found a pair of previously owned earplugs. I shoved them in so far they practically met behind my nose. I burrowed down beneath two pillows and a quilt. I hummed. I made ocean-like white noise.

After ten minutes, I got up and called for the dog. His head was firmly wedged beneath the bed.

“Okay, I’ve changed my mind. Go gettem, tiger.”

No, thank you, he said, glancing at the fang imprints he now sported.

We both spent the rest of the night being miserable and met up in the kitchen at breakfast—me fresh from a shower and him coming in from outside.

So, this might be of interest. He dropped a greeting card in my lap.

“What does it say?”

He snorted. You know I don’t read. But it was right outside my dog door.

I read it aloud for the both of us.

Hey, bud. Sorry about the bite. I thought you were a whippoorwill. Those things are driving me crazy.’

I looked up from the note. “Well, apparently some of Mother Nature’s brood has manners.”

~Shelley

*ROBIN GOTT’S BONUS CARTOON* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Knew It! It’s Only a Matter of Time.

All you have is the NOW.”

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This is a quote from my yoga teacher. She reminds me twice a week that there is the past, and the potential, but most important is the present.

This moment.

And once it goes, it’s gone.

I wrestled with that quote for an entire hour last week during class, trying to unravel it. Those six little monosyllabic words. It was harder to pay attention to than I thought it would be. My thoughts have a habit of being way ahead of my body—or way behind it. The idea of syncing the two together is about as easy as the concept of bowling in space or playing tennis underwater. Not a lot of success, and hugely effortful.

I understand the need for a point of convergence mostly because I’ve benefitted when I’ve arrived at exactly that spot. But these are tiny chunks of time—slivers really. Twenty minutes of meditation where maybe out of those twenty minutes I was fully present for about four of them. The other sixteen were thinking about my grocery list, what books were due at the library, or how to encourage my plumber to put whisky, red wine, and chocolate sauce on tap in my kitchen.

I know. I get distracted. But it’s nearly impossible for me shut down that thought factory.

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The idea of remaining mentally engaged is a no-brainer for me—although that’s clearly a poor choice of words. As a writer, I need access to my stores of creativity and a method of churning up its source to keep the vault filled to capacity. Damned is the day I open that door, reach in and pull out nothing but a fistful of mothball scented air. I also need cerebral acuity in order to keep up with my kids. Once I discover they’re slowing their speech and purposefully choosing words that would be dismissed as too difficult for a fourth-grade spelling bee I am toast.

I’m grateful to my yoga and meditation teachers who all seem to carry the parade-sized banner that states: Found yourself distracted by other thoughts? No worries! Start again. It’s rather an amazing club to belong to where you thankfully realize that J.K. Simmons is not your mentor and you will never get slapped upside the head for losing the count.

But the measurement of time—or time perspective—is often where I get caught in a circular loop. I once heard psychologist Philip Zimbardo lecture about how time—as our current culture defines it—can be broken into six segments.

You can have a Past time perspective, where you focus on the positive or negative, a Present time perspective, where you focus on hedonism or fatalism, or a Future time perspective, where you focus on life goals or the transcendental.

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I may pen Dr. Zimbardo a note to suggest a quick conversation with my hero Neil deGrasse Tyson who believes we could possibly add a seventh segment to time perspective that I’ll call Sideways. Neil says, realistically, if there’s a forward and backward and a ‘stay where you are’ on the measurement of time, there’s likely a left and a right built in there too, but we’re just not seeing it yet.

Yep. Mushroom-shaped, mind-blowing thought, eh? See why I can’t stay focused?

But I think I’ve discovered what would help me on all fronts of time measurement and it’s a ridiculously simple solution, and yet an impossible one.

HIT PAUSE.

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Stopping time altogether seems like an answer that would affect the past, the future and the present—and likely those wonky side bits Neil says are invisibly hanging about. How?

If for twenty-four hours I could stop time entirely I could work at fevered pitch, press play and then realize that the next day I’d wake up and be a paltry nineteen days behind schedule rather than the overwhelming twenty I’ve currently tallied. That might make a dent in the past and I’d feel a more ‘positive past time perspective.’

Or I could use the time to make a massive deposit in my depleted sleep bank and snooze through the two dozen hours. This would surely display my tendencies toward ‘hedonistic present time perspective.’

Or lastly, I could finally fill out that Last Will & Testament, write sappy farewell love letters to my children, build myself a sturdy pine box and locate the tree I’d like to be buried beneath as a clear illustration of my ‘transcendental future time perspective’ because the alternative of devoting those windfall hours to ‘life goals’ would do nothing but demonstrate that God had somehow managed to insert an eighth day to the week, as it would be the same as the seven before it.

No. It must be unique.

Twenty-four blissful bonus hours of time not moving even one tiny inch forward. I could catch up, I could sleep or I could focus entirely on my impending death.

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Umm … it may not be as tough a choice as I once thought.

Yep. Those extra hours sure would be appreciated. In fact, maybe the best idea would be to devote the day to increasing my success with that whole mind/body being in the moment goal.

So, for now I’ll put the past behind me and I’ll set aside the future. Because as all the great Zen masters say, there’s no time like the present.

Except for the ones Neil says we can’t see.

~Shelley

*BONUS ROBIN GOTT CARTOON!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

The Brains Behind … Well, Just About Everything.

Do you remember that old United States Army slogan? The one that barks out: We get more done before 9am than most people do all day.

Yeah, I’m not so sure what level of commercial success those folks found when using that little jingle to advertise club membership in America. To be honest, I think McDonald’s research proved a little more triumphant when broadcasting their opinion of: You deserve a break today.

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Still, I bet most of us can probably think of one or two people who actually fit the bill for the timeline of military grade accomplishment. I’ve certainly met one.

Well, not exactly met, but saw interviewed.

Okay, not exactly viewed in person so much as watched on screen from a satellite feed.

Which was a little bit silly since the person was, in fact, interviewed in the next building over, not more than 100 yards away.

But I suppose that’s how someone like Elon Musk rolls, and it was quite fitting for the situation.

Now if you’re one of those folks who barely keeps up with the pace of how frequently your new president, prime minister, or monarch gets voted or crowned into office, then you might be more on par with my ability to track new faces thrust into the media spotlight.

No judgment.

So here’s the skinny on Mr. Musk: He is not a musician, a sports star, or a politician. He is not a reality TV character, an author, or a celebrity chef.

He is basically a giant brain supported by a couple of legs.

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In truth, Elon Musk may very well be all of the things mentioned above, but his accomplishments in those categories have yet to make headline news. But I’m sure if we all give him a minute or two, they’ll start to show up. He truly has the biological computing power equal to ten people, and seems to have fit each of their lifetime achievement awards into forty some years.

A few of this man’s accomplishments include co-creating PayPal, working as CEO and head of product design at Tesla Motors, occupying the chairman’s office for SolarCity, and oh yeah, in his spare time, he launches rockets into the great cosmos with a little company called SpaceX.

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The opportunity to hear Mr. Musk interviewed was brought to my attention by my daughter, when she announced he would be appearing on her campus as part of an aerospace symposium that would include some of the most current and historic superstars that have left their mark within the history of space exploration. Was I interested in throwing my name into the lottery with the hopes that we could get a couple of seats in the auditorium to see the Q & A?

Um, hell yeah.

Sadly, the lottery did not work in our favor, but the university kindly did not leave us standing in the lobby with our ears pressed against the theater doors. They set up a few more rooms where folks could watch big screens broadcast the interview for that ‘doesn’t it feel like you’re practically on stage with him?’ experience.

And truthfully, I think it was probably more revealing than sitting in the back of the auditorium just behind the woman with the hairdo that required its own zip code and the man who had set new physical records for height and breadth on his pediatric growth chart.

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The first thing I noticed was our guest speaker’s eyes. They were showing signs of more than your typical wear and tear. I turned to my daughter. “Somebody needs a nap.”

After initially shushing me, she said, “The man doesn’t have time to sleep.”

“I hope he’s not refusing his body the biological need to use the toilet as well in favor of harnessing an asteroid. I’m pretty sure there are a bucketload to choose from.”

My daughter ignored me. The great god of science was speaking. And if you didn’t closely pay attention, you could very easily miss out on an off the cuff statement announcing his next biggest venture. Mr. Musk was like that. Little pomp and circumstance. Just a casual comment about how now one of his companies was planning to reuse their rockets instead of allowing them to crash into the sea, another company was going to create a subsonic air travel machine that would flip folks back and forth from Los Angeles to San Francisco faster than one could make a sandwich, and yet another that is working on a solar powered, suborbital, metagalactic spacecraft that will not only stop time, but reverse it in 30 minute increments.

Okay, that last one I made up, BUT I WOULD NOT BE SURPRISED!

Elon Musk is a man who doesn’t just gaze up at the stars in wonder. Chances are he’s a guy who recently looked up and decided he was growing weary of the same ole same ole constellations each season, and according to the latest space frenzy gossip, will likely whip up 700 new satellites to blanket the Earth and provide global internet access. It might be nice to see some new bling on Orion’s Belt, right?

I suppose for a fellah who finds ideas spilling out of his brain at such a clip, and who regularly works a 100 hour week, it’s not unexpected to see his name and face splashed across the news as many times in a day as I brush my teeth—and I am all about dental hygiene.

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And it’s not a shocker to see how hard he’s working to get our butts onto Mars, to give us Earthlings a new pad to crash. Because one thing I recently discovered about the red planet is that its day has 37 minutes more than ours.

After learning this trivia tidbit, and having absorbed all that’s on this fellow’s ‘to do’ list in any given day, I’m guessing Mr. Musk is just hankering for one where he can get everything done and throw in a quick thirty minute kip to reboot.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 5)

This is it. The concluding chapter. The final phase of this fantastic tale Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. This is where our hero’s outcome and the outcome of her heroic journey are finally unveiled.

And in my attempt to liken this to a finely structured story, it’s broken down into bite-sized bits for ease of mastication.

We have had the Big Goal: This is where our protagonist—sweet child ‘o mine—launches her balloon—SkyHAB (sky high altitude balloon, carrying what I swear is nothing more than a giant cloud urinal) 100,000 feet upward, with fingers crossed, to capture space data – Episode One.

Next we came upon The Crisis: SkyHAB launched, but the GPS landlubbered. The balloon was untethered and unaccounted for. We petitioned the US Government for a reimbursement of paid taxes that went toward defective global spyware and are awaiting our refund which should arrive any day after the twelfth of Dream On – Episode Two.

Following that was the Recommitment to the Goal: WE LOCATED SKYHAB!  … sort of – Episode Three.

At last we came to The Climax: The hunt for SkyHAB was filled with deadly peril. It ended with a heart-palpitating car chase and potential capture by Lizzie Borden’s grandson. Was this the end for the balloon and our young scientist with behemothic book smarts but space cadet street smarts? – Episode Four.

And finally, The Dénouement or The Reveal: I’d spill the beans, but then you may never read further then the end of this sentence.

So much tension you could practically string this story between two toothpicks and walk across it.

Ah, the makings of a tale that falls a few levels below Dreamworks, but a notch above your average 9th grade history newsreel. And one we can wrap up tout de suite. Because I’m sure many of you are wondering whether or not my child is still alive.

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I was too.

For twenty minutes I sat staring at the phone willing it to ring, wondering and panicking at the thought that my daughter had been nabbed by a child snatcher who was following her as she attempted to recover her balloon, parachute and THE PAYLOAD in the middle of no-cell-hell. And every three minutes I phoned her with nothing but her snarky voicemail message to taunt me.

Hi, you’ve reached Chloe. Leave me your details and I’ll call you back … if I like you.

I paced. Did deep breathing exercises. Stared at Google Earth and its wretchedly slow updates. I made an award winning sculpture of the Hubble telescope with nothing more than plastic spoons and recycled tin foil.

Twenty-two minutes after loss of contact the phone rang.

“Hey,” Chloe said.

“HEY???” I echoed. “Hey? I was about to phone 911! What happened?”

“Oh, him? Yeah, he was weird. We may need a sizeable back up team. No worries. I’m on my way. What’s for dinner? I’m starvin’ Marvin.”

*face palm*

Two days later was the big senior project seminar. My daughter had to give a couple of presentations to explain her adventures and unveil her results. Well … no balloon equals no data, as all the data was in THE PAYLOAD. And THE PAYLOAD was somewhere in the Sandy River Reservoir. Camera footage, statistical calculations, motherboard bits and pieces that tell you the secrets of the universe were all gone. There go your hopes and dreams. Science shakes its head at you, tsking.

Still, the presentations were stellar. A lot of telling, but no showing–yet somehow still stellar.

THEN …

The next day I received a phone call from some wild woman screaming. I finally recognized the dulcet tones of my child and asked her to pull it down a few decibels.

Someone found the balloon!

And not just someone. She said his name was Papa Smurf.

My mind immediately envisioned a small pack of blue forest creatures that lived near the reservoir where SkyHAB went down, and somehow, purely in the interest of furthering science, they managed to break their cardinal rule of no contact with humans and phoned the Department of Natural Resources to report a spacecraft landing.

Not really.

Actually, Papa Smurf, aka, “Big Mike” is a Virginia fisherman who, in the middle of doing a little afternoon big mouth bass hunting, landed himself something a little less delicious but definitely fishy.

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The writing on the side of THE PAYLOAD was smeared, but our last name was visible. Enter Facebook.

The rest of the story goes a little like this: My daughter ignores friend request – stranger danger – and Papa Smurf/Big Mike must get creative.

Facebook says my daughter interns at the university’s aerospace research lab.

Papa/Mike hunts down a professor.

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Describes to professor the reeled in riches. Our professor texts his industrious intern. His intern explodes with exultation.

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His intern calls her mother and begs for bakery goods to reward the fisherman with multiple monikers in exchange for THE PRECIOUS PAYLOAD. The trade is made. Strawberry pie is swapped for a lunch box full of cryptic clues to the cosmos and a few bits of water weed.

We are thrilled.

It is finished.

I am exhausted.

She is planning her next mission: Definitely Not a Waste in Space! Where one young scientist attempts to discover if Silly Putty can be used as insulation on homemade sub-orbital spacecraft.

Me? I might just back out of this next one quietly. I think it’s pretty clear that I ain’t no rocket surgeon.

~Shelley Big Mike (450x800)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 4)

My patient Peakers, I promise the end is in sight. Episode Four is bringing us nearly to the end of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. For those of you who are joining us for the first time, I beg you—nay I beseech you–to unite with your fellow readers in space exploration anxiety and find out what the hell I’m talking about, as only by reading Episode One, Episode Two, and Episode Three will you bask in the full-fledged experience of this tale.

Or … I can summarize:

Daughter has massive senior project (Project SkyHAB – sky high altitude balloon).

Daughter chooses to launch a balloon the size of Rhode Island into space to see if she can make science happen in something called a Cloud Chamber. Cloud Chamber actually looks like a piece of stolen Tupperware from my pantry.

Costly cameras and GPS units are accompanying THE PAYLOAD. No one at Mission Control is clear on what THE PAYLOAD contains, but it must be retrieved or the world will end as we know it.

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A well-crafted, highly skilled team is assembled on launch day for lift off on site in central Virginia and a half-assed team (including two very sane, last minute volunteers) is cobbled together at HQ.

Launch team is in charge of … launch.

Half-assed team is in charge of GPS tracking the balloon and THE PAYLOAD via the computer, the occasional bit of laundry, and creating a giant ice sculpture on the front lawn that spells out WELCOME NASA.

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Launch is a success. Balloon becomes itty bitty dot in the firmament. Tracking team is befuddled with screens across Virginia that report nothing to track.

All teams feel failure as they have never felt before. Lead scientist is catatonic with grief.

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Four hours later the balloon comes crashing down to Earth and rises from the dead on radar.

The lead scientist and HQ are unhinged with happiness.

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The lead scientist and HQ then realize that the balloon has landed in a body of water made by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries specifically to obliterate the advancement of space knowledge directed by hopeful teenage researchers.

 

And now … the rest of the story.

Recovery of any launch is probably just as harrowing as the launch itself, as we came to realize. And constructing a recovery team after having exhausted the list of folks we knew who could help in the building phase, the launch phase, and the expensive therapy phase, we were left with three and one half units of aid:

The chief scientist (daughter)

Mission Control team specialist (me)

Technical support (Google Earth)

And some scary redneck dude who might be a serial killer.

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Not as impressive as we’d hoped, but it was better than a sharp stick in the eye—although a sharp stick in the eye may be a pleasurable alternative to that serial killer fella. We did not tarry.

On the road in her tiny VW bug, my daughter drove and I navigated—again from my chair at HQ while consulting with technical support. SkyHAB had purportedly gone down somewhere in the middle of 740 acres of the Sandy River Reservoir. We were going to get her as close to it as possible, but it looked like that might require a team of lumberjacks and a VW that could transmogrify itself into a pontoon.

Once I had remotely piloted her vehicle to the end of all paved roadage, the rest of the journey was to be traversed on foot. We were connected via smart phones, but the transmissions were not unlike those of the United States’ first mission to the moon. We lost contact repeatedly and found binoculars to be insufficient paraphernalia for reading hand gestures from that distance.

“Alrighty, Google Earth says you need to move southwest with a heading of 238°. Don’t forget to lock your car. And take a bottle of water. And find a stick.” This was as high tech as we could get.

“Hold on, Mom. Some guy is coming toward me.” (Insert muffled voice and …) “Nope, I’m not lost … uh … (muffled voice) okay, sure.”  (Sound of tiny rover engine coming to life.) “Apparently, I can’t park here.”

“What?” I say, looking at the earth map. “It’s a dead end dirt road. What are you blocking?”

“Whatever.” (Rover rumbles to new spot. Car door slams. Sounds of footfalls through underbrush and forest.)

“Chloe?”

“He’s still watching me.”

“He’s what?”

“Oh brother—hold on.” (Sounds of cracking sticks, muffled forestry, and running footfalls. Silence.)

A minute ticks by. Two. (HQ’s clock ticks grow louder and morbid.) Is he speaking to her? Has he captured her and thrown her in the back of his pickup truck? Will I never see the chief scientist again? “Hey, kiddo? Chloe? CHLOE!!”

(Strangled, obscure sounds.) “Chill, Mom. I had to pee. How much farther do I have to go to get to the edge of the reservoir?”

(HQ breathes sigh of relief.) “About a mile and a half, and tech support reports it’s all uphill. Is the guy still around? Maybe you ought to come back with a team of friends. And all my kitchen knives.”

“Yeah, there is no way I can get through this underbrush. We may have to find someone with a boat.” The chief scientist muscles through the forest back to her car. “Crap! There he is.”

“What? Chloe, get in your car!”

“F**K! He’s running over here!”

“Hurry up! Get in your car! And watch your damn language!”

“I’m in it—I’m in it!”

(Sound of little rover rumbling to life and gravel spray.)

“Chloe??”

(click)

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Oh my godfathers. I panic and look on Google Earth to see if I can spot my daughter and this potential child abductor. And remember that Google Earth images are not in real time. Great. In about three hours I will know what tragedy befell my child.

And in about one week, so will you.

~Shelley

July Gotta Have a Gott winner

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Jump on over to see the cartoon winner for July!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 3)

I know this has been a tiny bit of torture for many of my regular Peakers out there—this being the third installment of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space, a series about my eighteen-year old daughter’s balloon launch (Project SkyHAB) where she was determined to make it rain in space. (She denies this, but it’s what I deduced after looking at the hieroglyphics wallpaper—she calls them “equations”—tacked to every square inch of vertical surface space in her bedroom. Or she is attempting to reach ancient Egyptian astronauts.) I implore any newcomers to catch up with Episode One and Episode Two. If you don’t, it’ll be a little like watching the Star Wars series and starting right in the middle with Episode IV.

Wait …

Okay, maybe not so much like that because I’m no George Lucas—no matter how many times folks tell me we have almost identical facial hair styles.

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So, as we last left off, I was staring dumbfounded at a computer screen, watching GPS coordinates flash at me, insisting that my daughter’s balloon–the expensive contraption that underwent two week’s worth of heavy soldering, gluing, duct taping and volatile gas testing–was still contentedly sitting at her feet somewhere in the middle of the bucolic state of Virginia. In reality, my daughter was curled up in the fetal position and her space balloon was quite possibly rapidly making its way to Bermuda.

I wanted to be there with it.

The phone line that connected us went dead after I announced that we’d lost contact with the mothership, and so did our dreams of being cataloged in The Journal of Great Space Exploration From Some Folks Who Know What They’re Doing But Are Underfunded & One Person Who is Better Off Suited Up as the Team Mascot. (It’s not a widely read journal.)

I quickly emailed the rest of my team, desperate to see if either one of them had logged movement. Both reported the same screen. The balloon was stationary.

For the next hour I tried every computer in the house—all hand held devices as well as those whose monitors rivaled a Drive-In movie screen. Nada. I was in despair. I held a small council session with my headquarter’s fur-faced team, bouncing ideas off them as quickly as they came to me. Does anyone have a reliable contact at Langley? Should we call Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his private cell and ask for advice—even though we’d been ordered by a court of law to cease and desist? Should we alert the Coast Guard and demand to see our tax dollars in action?

All I got was blank faces and blinking vacant eyes. Plus a glance toward the treat jar on the kitchen counter. My command center team sucked.

It had been an hour and a half since we’d lost contact. I phoned my daughter to see if she’d scraped herself off the ground yet and what the plan was from the head scientist’s perspective. Her dulled voice murmured over the phone, “I’m on my way back. There’s nothing we can do.”

Click.

The mission was over.

I started preparing my motherly speech about how It’s not the destination, but the journey–any maybe not even the journey per se as the preparation for the journey. I was going to have to bring out the big guns. Cadbury, Toblerone, and Ben & Jerry’s.

The next three hours were a hazy collection of work assignments. And emotional eating. The Center of Operations was fully immersed in testing food sources to see what might bring the lead scientist out of her funk and then have it ready for when she made it back to base camp. We exhausted ourselves with effort.

And then …

There was a ping.

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The kind of sound that happens when a patient who’s been declared “unalive” proves to all the “time of death” doctors that he is now one of the “undead.” It’s usually accompanied by several people mumbling, “But this is impossible.”

“But this is impossible!” I shouted to my slumbering, sacked out team. I stared at the screen—the very screen that hours ago made me believe that someone at NASA had accidentally tripped over and unplugged our satellite from the wall socket–and gawked at just how fickle the winds can be at 100,000 feet off the Earth’s surface. There was a series of crazy, streaking lines through the center of Virginia that now confirmed that my daughter’s high altitude balloon, with all of its precious cargo, had landed safely in the welcoming bosom of the Central Baptist church parking lot.

HALLELUJAH!

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I quickly called my daughter. I did some screaming into the phone. She did some screaming back into the phone. Half of the team at home bounced and barked and the other half looked at me while quietly cleaning her paw. The phone went dead. More heart palpitations—did she drive off the road? Would she ever make it home to claim her research project? Had I killed the mission a second time?

Five minutes later a car blaring its horn whizzed up the driveway. Into the house bounded one very happy engineer.

We hugged, we sprung about one another like tightly bound human coils with tears of joy and laughter. This was a great day indeed.

“Where is it? Where is it? Show me!” my daughter said.

I brought the screen to life.

Oops.

The Central Baptist church was not SkyHAB’s final destination. It had taken another jiggy turn southeast for one last great push and landed …

In the Sandy River Reservoir.

SkyHAB was in the drink.

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So I reached for one too.

What happened next? It involves a sizable amount of hard liquor and a therapist on speed dial. No, wait. That’s just how I plan to deal with all the hate mail in the comment section this week. Come back and find out about the fate of SkyHAB on Episode Four of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space.

~Shelley

July Gotta Have a Gott 

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. See the cartoons in competition and to cast your vote.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 2)

I couldn’t sleep last night. In my head, all I could think about was that tomorrow was Launch Day—the culminating event of a two week, end of high school senior project my eighteen-year old daughter was tackling. The title of the adventure was Project SkyHAB (for Sky High Altitude Balloon). But I referred to it fondly as One Teenager’s Dream to Make it Rain in Space.

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In order to fully understand the impossibility of success for this operation, you must catch up. Read this. It’s part one. The rest of us will wait while you’re gone. Hurry up.

Alrighty then, now that we’re all on the same page, it will not come as a surprise to find out I was assigned to be Head of Mission Control. That meant I would need to be glued to the monitor attached to my computer with no distractions like food or water, and maybe only the occasional gulp of air for the entire four-hour flight. I would need loose fitting clothing and a slickly greased swivel chair. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. There is a bucketload of stress attached to the job, and I’m guessing at some point, someone may consider making a film about it.

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I heard my daughter leave for the launch site just before 5 am, and like most folks in charge of the less physical aspects of a job—particularly those in management—I went back to sleep for a couple of hours. She’d call if there was a snag. I was sure of it.

After a while, those of us who considered ourselves top brass rolled out of bed. The hound, the hellcat, and I all found some grub. One of us was supposed to purchase freeze dried astronaut food as a way of setting the mood and creating a scene, but didn’t. I glared at them both. This was going in the report.

We waited anxiously for the phone call that was to signal the start of the countdown, and bounced around from room to room keeping limber. We did laundry, washed some dishes, pulled a few weeds, and penned yet another lengthy epistle to Carl Sagan, who for some rude reason started ignoring my missives around 1996. I was hoping to Skype with him while the balloon was making its way spacebound.

Apparently, my personal Houston was not going to answer, so I’d have to go it solo. I wasn’t deterred. More donuts for me at the afterglow party once we’d achieved success.

Although I was told to hang tight for the T-minus 60 notification, my anxiety about the many hour delays compelled me to phone the launch site every 30 minutes for an update.

I heard explanations about faulty equipment, excuses that laid blame at the feet of a roll of duct tape, and a lot of foul language. It was a little like attending one of my daughter’s violin gigs.

Wanting to make sure I was totally up to date, I continually refreshed the website that broadcasted the GPS coordinates. It pinged the same longitude and latitude for hours on end. I decided I should be prepared with backups in case of an unforeseen local blackout and a complete loss of power, a massive equipment failure with my desktop, or a solar flare incident that wiped out the one satellite dedicated to me and Project SkyHAB for today.

I called my dad and a friend.

I told them science depended upon their willing participation and announced they would get credit in the report write up sent to NASA.

My dad bargained for a nap mid-afternoon.

I told him this would affect his performance evaluation in the report.

He told me that either he got the nap, or I could go fly a kite.

I reminded him that this was A BALLOON.

There was some terse language about a union, and a reminder that he knew people who worked at the local Pennysaver, so I finally gave in and agreed to the nap. Bad press is not gonna happen on my watch.

At precisely 12:43 pm—or something close to it—I received the much anticipated phone call. My head was in the fridge. I was cleaning chocolate milk off the shelves.

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“WE’VE LAUNCHED!”

“Wait—what?? Where’s the countdown? There was supposed to be a countdown. And I needed to have my people on standby. How could you have already launched when I—”

“MOTHER! ARE YOU TRACKING THE COORDINATES? WHERE IS MY BALLOON?!!”

“Hold on a sec.” I raced to my super slickly greased wheelie chair and tried to get my computer to wake up from sleep mode. It was obviously over-tired from the taxing morning work of refreshing the GPS site and refused to be roused.

“MOTHER?!!”

“Yep, yep … yep, hold on a sec, I’m checking.”

“MOTHER! WHERE IS MY BALLOON!”

The computer screen flared to life. The coordinates flashed in front of me. My heart seized up and stopped beating. “Huh … how bout that.”

“WHAT?”

“It appears your balloon is still at the launch site.”

“NO IT ISN’T!!”

“Says so right here.”

I heard the phone drop and the distant voice of my daughter shouting, “Come back! Wait … come back, baby!”

You want to know what happened next? I’ll bet you do. Let me just say this: it involves a gun, a team of humiliated London policemen and Benedict Cumberbatch. No wait … that’s the contents of the next Sherlock episode I’m about to watch. Sorry.

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Come back next week for the next installment of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 1)

The last two weeks have been a flurry of foam, duct tape, soldering irons, steel wool, motherboards, electrical wire, miniature GPS devices, itsy bitsy video cameras, and big tubs of Ben & Jerry’s strewn about the kitchen counter.

The place is a tip.

It looks like a small Chinese manufacturing plant exploded inside my house.

In reality, my eighteen-year old daughter is nearing completion of her last high school project. For days, she has been walking around with welding glasses perched atop her head, a phone to ‘tech support’ glued to her ear, and a t-shirt that says Stand back. I’m about to try science, hanging from her small frame.

Empty packages from Amazon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and CheapLiquor.com litter the floor—wait … no, that last one is for my project. A massive, torpedo-shaped, blue helium tank that could pass as a NASA test rocket reject stands proudly upright on my front porch and has scared multiple package delivery men sufficiently to phone me from inside their trucks to make sure it was okay to ring the doorbell.

I tell them it’s always a gamble, tank or not.

Currently, this is Launch Day.

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The item to be launched requires descriptive word prowess that does not fall within my wheelhouse. But I’ll give it a whirl. Imagine the balloon that the Wizard of Oz floats beneath when he ditches the whole gang at the send off party. Now picture the “people holding” basket beneath it. But our basket is not so much a basket as it is a lunchbox. But instead of lunch, it carries a tracking device, two Lilliputian-sized video cameras, battery packs that would put an electronics store to shame, allegedly a computer–but it looks to me like a small bomb, and enough compressed foam to make three king-sized mattresses.

I tried slipping in a package of honey-roasted peanuts for in flight snacking, but my hand was slapped away. Like there was room for it anyway.

On top of the basket is a “cloud chamber.” Apparently, this is not where clouds gather to dress, sleep, or make a ruling on legal issues.

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But it is, roughly speaking, where they may relieve themselves. This involves sponges, alcohol and a Plexiglas box. To me this sounds like a frat party. To others, it is considered science. Go figure.

The basket is wrapped in blinding pink and zebra-striped duct tape. There is also a flashing red light that may lead folks to believe there is a small reindeer stuffed into the basket with just enough space for a nose hole.

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All of this is what’s referred to as THE PAYLOAD.

It’s so official sounding. And since I have no idea what the payload actually does, I simply say it with enough emphasis and confidence when telling folks about it that they basically respond the same way I do: with wonderment and awe. Then I rush on to some other topic to save myself from any questions.

It’s been working fairly well, unless I find I’m speaking to a self-proclaimed science geek, in which case I usually then just shout, “Look! An eagle!” and run like hell in the opposite direction. It’s harder to pull that one off in line at the grocery store, but I just don’t have time to finesse my routine.

From what I’ve been told, THE PAYLOAD will be connected to a large balloon, and by large I mean the size of a small house. This floating piece of real estate will be in charge of lift. Especially if the blue tank is truly full of helium and not antediluvian rocket fuel. All together, the project has a snappy scientific name: SkyHAB (sky high altitude balloon).

My daughter, and an extensively interviewed group of volunteers (in total: one other guy who has nothing to do today), have set up the balloon launch site about 80 miles southwest of our house.

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They intend to release the balloon, track the balloon, and finally retrieve the balloon. Well, not so much the balloon as THE PAYLOAD. The balloon will eventually, somewhere around 100,000 feet, reach it’s “combustible threshold.” Boy, am I familiar with that unit of measurement. Then a parachute will—read should—deploy, and down will come cradle, Rudolph and all.

The GPS unit is supposed to allow the launch team the ability to track its whereabouts in order to eventually locate THE PAYLOAD and retrieve the valuable data about how frequently clouds need to use the loo. Or something equally as shocking.

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As we are on the precipice of launching, I must set aside my essays, find myself an inked-stained pocket protector, and create some sort of headgear so that I will look official in my position of Chief Head Scratcher at Mission Control.

Stay tuned, Peakers. I shall return with part two of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. In the meantime, as I sit tracking THE PAYLOAD via GPS, watch this space … no this space … no this space …

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

A matter of life and death!

Kill your Darlings.

This is probably one of the most wretched phrases a writer ever has to grapple with. I’m guessing it settles itself just beneath Thank you, but no thank you, we’re going to pass.

Maybe it ties with Well, I’ve read some of your writing … You sure you want to be a writer? How about farming—what do you think of farming? Or trucking. Can you drive a big rig?

I say let’s find the old curmudgeon who came up with the satanic slogan and string him up by his toes. I could use some practice with dismemberment before I start hacking away at my manuscript. That’s what it’s about essentially: the death of all you love.

For those of you who’ve never come across this sinful suggestion in your line of work, you may consider yourselves lucky. You also may consider yourselves confused as to what I’m going on about.

A quick catchup: a long dead author—accurately identifying the name of said author can lather up writers into an unholy fractious state, so apart from classifying him as an English killjoy, we shall leave his name out of this—mistakenly believed the best way to win friends and influence people in the writing world was to inform them that the bits they loved most about their text were ALL GARBAGE and to basically take a hatchet to it.

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Okay, maybe I’m a little uptight at the moment and I’m unfairly criticizing what has become a sage rule of thumb to most authors, but only because it’s such a gleeful phrase for any editor to write. Take out all the fluff. Get rid of your purple prose. Find a sentence and ask yourself, Do I like this? If the answer is yes, then slash it. Delete it. Dump it. Kill your darlings.

Yes. I’m in the middle of editing right now, but perhaps you guessed that from my cheerful tone.

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This dreadful phrase is nothing more than a literary expression. Fairly innocuous to express. But putting it into action is akin to stripping away a layer of skin that you actually found attractive, warm, and cushioning. It also keeps several quarts of blood from oozing out of your flesh, but editors aren’t fussed about that. It’s the bare bones of beauty that we’re after, they say. We want only what’s relevant, only what moves the story forward, no frilly ornamentation.

I think my skin is fairly relevant.

And it allows me to move forward, as without my ‘ornamental’ skin I’d certainly never leave the house.

Putting oneself in a murderous state of mind seems easy at first. You read the advice from your agent or your editor or your critique group to simply “cut out about thirty pages.”

Thirty pages? At about 275 words per page? We’re talking more than 8000 words! That’s a huge amount of work. I don’t even say 8000 words in one week, so imagine how long it takes me to think up 8000 acceptable words to place in the manuscript?

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I pace a lot during this process. I slide down a lot of walls. I drape myself across the dog for comfort. I cry. I bargain. I bake cookies. I eat cookies.

Occasionally I find a word to delete.

It’s usually because I’ve combined two words into a contraction.

It is a miserable process.

I have just finished weeks of working—rewriting a 400 page manuscript that needed thirty pages sliced. I only sawed off twenty. I must begin the entire process again. And then again if needed. I’m thinking about removing one entire page for every forty that I read. Fingers crossed nothing dramatic happens on each of those pages, but perhaps I could sell them separately. We could offer the Editor’s Edition (370 pages), or the Author’s Edition (380 pages) and see which one shows better sales from the marketing department. Clearly we’d have to label the Editor’s Edition as a mystery because the reader will have to fill in the missing bits of nearly three percent of the book.

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And don’t forget, publishers always add those extra blank pages at the front and back of every book. Surely that should count for something, right?

(One can clearly see I’ve morphed back into the bargaining phase.)

(And now I’ve just fired up the oven.)

Regardless of how many cookies I shove into my gob, the work must happen. As long as I’m in my kitchen I shall sharpen my knives, hone their edges, make them gleam.

And now I am prepared. Prepared to continue killing my darlings.

As scared to death of this contemptible process as I am, I shall knock on death’s door, dance with death, deal a death blow, fight to the death and sound the death knell.

Egads, this murdering business will surely be the death of me.

~Shelley

BONUS MATERIAL!

HI MOM’S CULT BLOGOSPHERE AUDIENCE! I’m Chloe, her daughter, I guest-blogged here once. You might know me from all the complaining she regularly does about my high school life. ANYWAY. I am attempting to launch a weather balloon with cool science on it for the fun of it/to learn stuff/to save the world from its inevitable demise at the hands of muons. If you like science/space/me/my mom/being a generally cool person, please check out my fundraising campaign on Indiegogo! 
I’d greatly appreciate any support, as my parents are pretty sick and tired of my failed bottle rocket experiments and have refused to fund any more adventures into the great beyond.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

May Gotta Have a Gott winner

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Jump on over to see the cartoon winner for May!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles