Dying on Mars

Martian Sunset

Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

I don’t read much about the Mars One project because I’m too jealous of those who might actually go. I know, I know: the whole idea is a crackpot one and there is a very real chance that the project will never actually get of the proverbial ground. But if I’d been younger, fitter, and with skills more suited to the mission…I would have auditioned. Because to be part of that particular journey…just the thought of it takes my breath away. I’ve written previously about some of my thoughts on space and its meaning to me and I don’t really know what more to say about it. But the recent news about Mars One contestants as well as my watching a number of VSauce videos on YouTube about space and the upcoming release of Public Service Broadcasting’s album The Race to Space (which I highly recommend listening to), have me thinking about space a lot tonight.

And death. And how we think about our own deaths, and what we imagine might be a “good” death. For some, a good death would see them surrounded by family, for others it might be in the pursuit of extreme thrills or adventure. Others might simply desire a soft and kind exit, dying quietly in their sleep. If given the chance (which, realistically, I won’t be), my good death would be to die on another planet: to be part of humanity’s reach for the stars. Many might see those vying for the possibility of a one-way trip to Mars as odd and be puzzled by the apparent willingness to forgo family and friends for an arduous and uncertain journey that would certainly end in death—and probably sooner rather than later. But to stand on another world and to be part of that particular legacy? I would most certainly take that opportunity. Finding purpose is a tricky business and maybe I’m being naive to think that a journey to Mars would finally achieve a sense of purpose for me after so many years of struggling to find my own meaning to myself. Still, I can’t help but think that such a journey would indeed give me a profound sense of purpose and accomplishment.

However, I also know that a sense of purpose and meaning are not invested upon us by outside forces but are something we create for ourselves. In the grand scheme of things, being part of a mission to Mars is no more important than teaching someone to read or caring for a sick relative or writing a poem or creating a YouTube video or painting a “masterpiece” or helping a stranger or being kind or singing a song to an audience of one or loving someone or agitating for human rights or protesting war or thinking deeply about something you love or knitting or sharing food or dancing. In the face of deep time and deep space, all our achievements, all our legacies, all our accomplishments will be forgotten because the universe is really fucking huge and we are really fucking tiny…no, scratch that, microscopic…actually not even that, we are infinitesimally, inconsequentially, unbelievably smaller than the smallest thing you can even begin to imagine when placed against the size of the universe. Hell, space makes even the speed of light seem puny.

(For an example of this—and to get the barest fraction of a visceral sense of the size of things—I highly recommend checking out this video that simulates the journey of a photon leaving the sun and traveling through our solar system. Yes it will take 45 minutes and yes, it will require some level of patience that most of us don’t have these days with our need for constant stimuli, but I promise you that your time will be well spent. Especially so if you can watch it on the largest screen you possibly can.)

Our purpose and legacy, no matter how large they seem are ridiculously small when measured against the future, but that does not diminish their importance to us as we live and breathe and scrape and claw at existence for the short, short time we have. Purpose and legacy might be meaningless words to the universe, but they fill our hearts and minds with excitement and desire. Thus, while I know that in the long run all is forgotten in the heat death of the universe, I can’t help but struggle with my own sense of purpose and the legacy of what I will leave behind.

I will, hopefully, one day find my sense of purpose and make peace with my life and my accomplishments. Yet there will always a part of me that wishes I could stand on another planet.

Even if I was to die there.

A few lines

the sky is pink & grey

pink like a small wet stone half-buried in the sand
grey like your eyes as you turn away

New York City and Me

Closing in on the end of my two week trip to NYC on a New York Public Library Short Term Research Fellowship where I’ve been going through the Living Theatre archive that is housed in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. For some reason, as I walked through the Highline Park this morning before heading to Lincoln Center (the Performing Arts Library doesn’t open until noon), I had the urge to blog for the first time in a long, long time. Not sure I’ll even go through with it, but if you are reading these words, I have obviously posted.

The archive has been interesting and tedious. To be honest, nothing I have found has set my dissertation afire with new ideas or new evidence, but that is the nature of doing this kind of work. Considering that the archive was donated by Judith Malina, and considering that I’m interested in dismantling parts of the myth that surrounds the company, it’s not a huge surprise that I didn’t find the proverbial “smoking gun” in amongst the many, many letters and documents that I have been going through day after day after day. I am about to start my last day as a Fellow and my last day working in NYC on this trip. Tomorrow morning I board a train bound for Pittsburgh and home.

As I type these words, I am sitting in the little park in the center of Lincoln Center, shaded by trees, surrounded by small birds (sparrows?) hopping about and large, fat pigeons strolling like they completely own the place. Percussionists are ranged around the Paul Milstein Pool and practicing for a concert being held here tonight at 6pm. They are spaced throughout the center and so the sound moves about, coming from bass drums in one corner, cymbals from another. It looks like there will be a number of vocalist for the actual concert and I’m planning on sticking around for it after I finish my time inside. This little park has been lovely the past few days and provides a cool and restful space for writing or reading or just watching people move about the space.

Making these various trips to New York have been interesting, especially this one considering how long I’ve been in the city (I did take a weekend to visit folks and friends in RI). I was so desperately unhappy here during the three years I lived in Brooklyn, spending so much of my time defending myself from the city emotionally and mentally that every day felt like an assault. Yet now, I can visit this city and shrug off the noise of the streets and the subways, navigate the crowds with a level of ease and confidence, and in general accept the city on its own terms rather than trying to shut it out. Is it simply because I don’t live here and know that I’ll be leaving? Am I more centered in myself and my life? Probably both of those things have something to do with the change in how I relate to this city, and there are probably other reasons and changes as well. I find it interesting and a bit sad because I still regret that I spent so much of my time here with Joya in such an unhappy state because she deserved better from me during that time.

One last realization about my time here:

The city, especially when it is hot (and it was quite hot the other day), makes it impossible to forget just how embodied our lives our. I think that’s one of the elements of NYC in general that is a product of a great many people living in an urban space: your body is always present whether it is the heat and oppression of the subway platform, or the press of bodies in a subway car, or the awareness of space and bodies as you walk through mid-town (an awareness of space that most tourists don’t have which is why they are so damned annoying to New Yorkers—and while I am not a New Yorker, I am certainly, and proudly, not a tourist!), or the smell of the rotting garbage along the streets. Your body and its senses are brought to the fore in ways that cannot be avoided.

(The percussionists are currently playing sandpaper, creating a sshhhh-sshhhhh-ssshhhhhhsshhing sound that is revolving around and around the square.)

Honestly, I don’t want to go into the library in 20 minutes when it opens. I want to sit out here, enjoy the breeze and the shade and the susurrations of conversations and the squealing joy of children and the relative stillness in the midst of continual motion. I have a feeling that I won’t last too long in there today. I have one box on reserve and may not do more than that before leaving. Truth is, I’ve made my way through ream and reams of documents, taking over 1000 pictures of letters and box office reports and bills, getting through probably 3/4 of a 60 box collection—and most of that 1/4 that I haven’t looked at consists of documentation outside the period I’m looking at for my dissertation. I do feel like I have a responsibility to be here every day since I was given a fellowship for that purpose, but I’m close to diminishing returns here. This last box has production programs which I’ve seen a bunch of previously at UC Davis, but which I will make sure I document again and then, I think, I’ll come back outside, grab some lunch and just be and thank. Maybe write a little more. Maybe read. Maybe go for a walk in Central Park or maybe just come back out here and sit and watch and listen.

My Favorite PodCastle Stories of 2013

My Favorite PodCastle Stories of 2013

These are by no means an assessment of talent or value, merely my personal favorites of the stories we’ve run this year. If you don’t know about my involvement with PodCastle, you can read this Medium post to find out just what this organization means to me.

This year was the year of really long titles, as my first favorite is episode 248, a story by Claire Humphrey titled “Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot”. Coincidently, my second favorite story is also by Claire Humphrey, “Nightfall in the Scent Garden” which we ran as episode 271. You can probably start to get a sense of the type of fantasy I lean toward by these choices. Both of these stories have only the slightest hint toward the fantastic and depend more on character and poetry to carry the reader into the stories. This style is also evident in Kenneth Schneyer’s story—the second really long title of the year—,“Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer”. I do not pick this story because I narrated it, but because I love its subtlety and the way Schneyer blends joy and pain together in his descriptions of Latimer’s paintings.

In September we ran a lovely story by Amal El-Mohtar with a perfectly matched narrator, Tina Connolly. “A Hollow Play” not only has a John Cage joke, but is an understated and terrific meditation on love, friendship, and desire. Finally, with only a couple of weeks left in the year, we ran a haunting story by Ken Liu called “Maxwell’s Demon”.

So there you have it: my personal favorite stories from this year. I hope you will give them a listen if you haven’t already. Of course, we have plenty of other great stories at PodCastle, from Conan to L. Frank Baum, to kick-ass, warrior teddy-bears for you to enjoy.