Remembering the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

It always boggles my mind when I think about how a group of people with the right training
and the right minds can get together to build a spacecraft — and not only launch it into
outer space, but program it so accurately that it reaches a target hundreds of thousands
of miles away. Not to mention the fearlessness of those who choose to buckle themselves
into those crafts.

Over the years there have been many examples of successful launches. But there have also
been failures. And 30 years ago today, one launch went awfully wrong.

To start off, it’s important to mention that in the 1980s astronauts and space travel still had
some cachet. Was it all as exciting and glamorous as it was 20 years prior? Maybe not.
But astronauts were still portrayed and regarded as national heroes.

And the upcoming launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger was national news — certainly
news around our elementary school, because one of the astronauts, Christa McAuliffe, was
a high school Social Studies teacher. She would be the first teacher in space.

Launch was set for Tuesday, January 28, 1986. I was in third grade, and it was the day of
our elementary school’s science fair. Now for a reason that I can’t remember, I wasn’t able
to take my science fair project into the main cafeteria that morning and set it up while all the
other third-graders were doing so.

What I do remember is feeling nervous and hurried when I finally was able to leave whatever
room I was in so I could retrieve my project. I scooted up the stairs to my classroom on the
second floor. It was empty and the lights were out, but my project was where I’d left it: sitting
on a ledge by the windows (it was a model of an early battery, or voltaic pile, invented by
Alessandro Volta). I picked it up, left the classroom, and closed the door behind me. Holding
on to the materials tightly, I made it down the stairs and started walking the long, empty
hallway to the cafeteria, hoping there’d be room on a table — anywhere — to soak my pieces
of felt in salt water and layer them between plates of zinc and copper to complete the battery.

And at that moment, our principal turned on the loud speaker and made an announcement
to the entire school:

Shortly after launch, the Space Shuttle Challenger had suffered a malfunction and broken
apart in what appeared to be an explosion over the Atlantic Ocean.

His tone was serious and somber, and right then and there he asked that we all observe
a moment of silence for the crew of the Shuttle.

A moment of silence, as an entire elementary school. And there I was. Standing in the main
hallway, by myself.

I had no one to tell me how long that moment of silence should last. So I just stood there,
stomach turning, holding my science fair project, waiting to hear a voice or a noise.
Thirty years ago, today.

It was all our community and our nation could talk about. In fact, President Reagan, who was
set to give his State of the Union address that evening, postponed it and instead gave a
national address about the Challenger disaster straight from the Oval Office. He spoke on
the country’s loss, the courage and adventurous spirits of the seven crew members, and
even shored up the nerves of school-aged children everywhere by reminding us specifically
that sometimes painful, scary things are part of such bold exploration — and that ‘The future
doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.’

It could be the sense of nostalgia I’ve got right now, or the fact that I grew up in Small Town
USA, but it seems like there was a much larger sense of togetherness and unity back then.
A community was a community — not a few thousand individuals who led their individual lives,
or who expressed their sadness over a national tragedy in 140 characters or less, and then
largely resumed life as normal.

Is it that we’ve endured so many difficult times and hard-to-believe events since then that we
just don’t react as strongly anymore? Or that those things we’ve endured have caused us to
move from that sense of community to a sense of self? I don’t know. But when I think back on
the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, it reminds me that the world has changed.


For the past seven years I've been fortunate enough to live in an area of New York that,
despite its proximity to the big city, lies pretty gently in the hands of nature. In many areas
there's almost instant accessibility to parks and preserves, trails, woods, rivers, streams,
and more.

A few years ago, while walking along a nearby trail, I came across a crow's feather lying
on the ground. It was a flight feather and in excellent condition, so on a whim I picked it up
and took it home. When a number of months later I spotted an equally attractive feather
from a different species of bird in my neighborhood, I thought to bring it home as well,
and a collection was born.

Now although most birds do molt each year to some extent, feathers aren't something
easily found — even if you live in a favorable environment for it. And so my collection hasn't
grown much over the years. Blue jay, Sapsucker, Meadowlark. Not much more. But recently
in a park I found a feather that, despite missing a few barbs, immediately became the new
star of my collection by way of color, markings, and size. Satisfied, I brought it home and
stored it with the others.

If the story sounds familiar, it's likely that you too have collected something at one point
in your life. You might have a collection now. But if you don't, and if you need to think back
a few years — even all the way back to your childhood — to find the last time you did,
maybe it's time to start a new one.

It doesn't have to be something expensive or glamorous. It might not even cost anything
more than a little bit of your time. The reasoning goes beyond the objects themselves:

It's that when you have a collection and come across that next piece — whether you were
searching for it or whether you discover it unexpectedly – an otherwise ordinary day
becomes special. And if things hadn't been going well at all, finding that new piece for your
collection can even turn the entire day around.

It's a simple premise. But I've been thinking lately that as we grow older it's the simple things
that mean more and more; boiling life down to the pleasures we receive from simple things
and simple acts. Making someone smile. Seeing an old friend. Hearing a song you hadn't
heard in years. Finding that new item for your collection.

Eyes of a Child

Last night a man and his young daughter boarded the train I'd been riding and sat in the only
empty two-person seat in the car — the corner one, just across the aisle from where I was sitting.

I had shown the conductor my ticket a few stops prior and had since focused only on the music
coming from my headphones and the scenery rolling past the windows. But as the conductor
came around again to check the tickets of the newly boarded father/daughter pair I couldn't help
looking over at them and taking the headphones out of my ears.

The eyes of this young girl were the most radiant eyes you'd ever imagine a child could have.
Big. Brown. Beaming. Having been wrapped in her scarf and hat and winter coat as she was
made them stand out even more.

But as her father handed over his train ticket, what caused those eyes to shine most brightly
were the conductor's actions. He had just finished reaching into a pouch on his belt for the
standard-issue, card-stock seat checks. They come in stacks, each stack printed in a different
color. A different color for each train, each conductor, each day, as the rule goes. This time,
the color was yellow.

After punching her father's ticket the conductor held up two of those yellow seat checks and
informed the girl that one of them was just for her. As soon as he received her smile of approval
he began emphatically punching holes all over that seat check with his official puncher, rapid fire —
little bits of card stock fluttering to the floor like confetti. Once he was finished, and to her extreme
delight, he hovered that puncher over the other seat check and punched once. Then he paused,
looked right down at her, and said he would give both to her — but only if she promised to be really
good at home that night. She nodded her head up and down while her father exchanged a warm
smile with the conductor. He then turned back to his daughter and quietly asked her to say "thank you".

She obliged, and after hearing her expression of thanks the conductor finished punching holes in
the other seat check in the most authoritative yet entertaining manner, and asked how old she was.

"Five" she replied, bearing an honest smile that revealed all of her little teeth.

And then,

"Thank you."

Again, for good measure, as she carefully reached over to grab the seat checks from the
conductor's hand.

The conductor, father, and I looked at one another, pleasant grins all around.

And that little five-year-old girl didn't stop bouncing up and down in her seat, holding her seat checks
with those beaming eyes and that smile of pure, simple joy until it was my turn to exit the train three
stops later. She may have been bouncing all the way home.

The whole thing left me with a question I couldn't stop thinking about:

When was the last time we all looked in the mirror and saw those kinds of eyes beaming back at us?

If we can't remember, maybe it's been too long.

God Walking Through the Desert

Most of my childhood friends had great basements in their homes.

And what made their basements great wasn't necessarily the quality or quantity of the items
they contained; it's just that compared with what was in ours, the stuff in their basements was
always different, and therefore more exciting.

S.'s had a croquet set, and a dart board hanging on the back wall. And a small air conditioner
which sat on the tile floor and had a plastic bucket attached to the back that you had to empty
once it filled with water. T.'s had a little room on the side with art supplies and a big drafting table;
hanging next to it was a denim jacket on the back of which his father had perfectly painted a
Mötley Crüe album cover. And in the main room, a bar and bar chairs. J.'s had lots of neatly
stacked cardboard boxes and blankets, and a big armoire on the far end. And among the many
things in D.'s basement was an old, electric chord organ.

On the left-hand side of its brown plastic console there were two rows of little square-shaped
buttons. Each had the name of a chord printed above: B♭, F, C, G. Major and minor.

And one day in that basement, while S., M., B., and my sister and I were busy playing with so
many of the other items and objects, D. must have quietly powered on that electric organ.
I remember him suddenly saying,

"Listen, it's God walking through the desert."

We all turned around and watched as he reached down to the console and began pressing
a random assortment of those little buttons, one after the other, each of which played the chord
written above in a church-like, pipe-organ style.

And despite the randomness of the sequences he pressed, it always sounded just like God
walking through the desert. Very majestic and purposeful and filled with emotion, somehow.

Art Does Not Discriminate

A few years into the project, and certain themes have arisen. Notions on art, and what it is;
what it means to be creative; the mystery of inspiration. Some points generally agreed upon,
others discussed this way and that, others almost impossible to answer.

But there's one universal truth I hope this project has begun to convey:

Art does not discriminate.

Here's what I mean: You can travel to any country, any city, any village in the world – no matter
how big or small – and there will be someone there expressing him or herself creatively.
Without fail.

And because of this, art does not depend on any of the categories in which we have the habit
of placing one another. Art does not depend on nationality. Social class. Educational background.
Economic status. Race.

If you've already shed these limitations when you yourself view a painting or listen to a song or
read a poem, you've gained the benefit of an unbiased view. And if you haven't, it's something
worth considering.

After all, if you can shed these biases for art's sake, you're only a step away from shedding
them altogether.


A woman sat down in the seat in front of me on the railroad this morning. She was wearing
a black raincoat over a bright pink scarf; her hair was pulled straight back into a little bun.

It was mild for November; early and overcast enough that the sky wasn't completely light.
And from the small gap between the seat in front of me and the window I caught the
reflection of that bright scarf and her face.

She was looking out the window, across the Hudson, watching the Palisades go by.
Peacefully. Quietly. Same as I was. And every time she exhaled through her nose, two little
spots of vapor appeared and grew on the window. As soon as she finished that outward
breath those spots would shrink and quickly disappear – leaving just enough time for her
to softly breathe in and then breathe out again, creating those spots of vapor once more.

I wasn't sure what sort of pressures or stresses that woman would face during the day,
but she'd always have those few minutes of quiet contemplation from the morning.
And to me, in this kind of world even a few minutes-worth is a success.

Three Days Only


It Just Hit Me

On a recent weekday morning I took the elevator down to the lobby with a neighbor of mine:
An always bright and friendly woman perhaps in her mid-30s. Tall and slender, dark eyes,
lovely, and very unassuming.

With a goodbye we were out the front door, and there she went, skipping down the sidewalk
to her car.

Truly, skipping down the sidewalk, with an incredible, care-free smile.

And just now I think it's hit me how much good that moment did.

50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago today, in CBS studio 61, the Miles Davis Quintet played So What in front of
video cameras for an episode of The Robert Herridge Theater.

Perhaps it's the black and white, or the way Miles and a sharp-dressed horn section
watch from the background as thousands of notes burst like confetti out of John Coltrane's
saxophone—but for me there's something perfect about the film. Something humanly,
timelessly perfect. You'll have to watch for yourself.

Ultimately, in another 50 years I think some of my feelings will be the same. And some
might change. But above anything else, this film and the quintet's version of So What will
be eternally cool:


Some Other Time

If there's anyone I wish I could have featured in this project before they left this world, it's
jazz pianist Bill Evans. His original compositions are so incredible and contemporary.
And more than any others, they pull that string on my heart.

Late last night I found myself suddenly waking up with Bill Evans in mind, turning on my
computer, and searching the iTunes store for every 99-cent version of Time Remembered
they had. And I thought: how wonderful, the time in which we live, where a person can do
something like this so easily.

Sadly, Bill Evans passed away in 1980. I wasn't yet three years old.

So now I begin to think — as simple and instantaneous as it is for me to find and obtain
his music today, in another way I'm wishing it were the 1960s and Bill and I were both
alive. And to find his music I'd have to venture out into the chill of winter, walking to the
nearest record store with his songs in my head. I'd finally get there and with ice-cold fingers
I'd flip through record albums in the Jazz section, hoping they'd have the particular ones
I was looking for.

There's something about that kind of search, that kind of effort I love and sometimes miss
so much in this day and age.

What Sound Can Do

On the way to the train I always walk along an asphalt path that runs through a park,
just off the Hudson River.

Sleeping in and missing the early train isn’t really ideal, but it does allow me the chance
to see more people who are out and making their way through the park.

On these late mornings I sometimes come across a man walking the path who cannot see.
He gently waves a long wand across the asphalt, and as he hears others walking by, very
kindly says ‘hello’.

This morning – a late morning – I was wearing shoes with a leather sole and a short,
wooden heel. They make a distinct clip-clop across the path.

I saw my friend waving his wand in the distance. As I approached and walked alongside,
I greeted him with a ‘good morning’, to which he replied the same.

Just then he found the metal pole that marks the end of the path, paused for a moment,
turned his head more closely in my direction, and as I continued to walk past he added,

‘Nice shoes’.

Susana Baca and Autumn Leaves

August is lying down.

For the first time, a chill has permeated the morning air in New York City. And yesterday
I saw a brown, crackled leaf tumbling across the pavement here on the East Side.
A gentle portent of the coming autumn weather.

For the past few years, these moments have delivered thoughts of singer Susana Baca –
I watched her perform for the first time in September, back in the year 2000.

To me, there's a match between the autumn air and Susana's music. It's about transition.
Change. Turning a steady, warm, extroverted feeling upside-down. The hesitant-but-necessary
search for coat and scarf.

When I met Susana two years ago, she mentioned this. How her music is about a refreshment,
a change – even if you leave her performances feeling many different emotions (which is not a
bad thing at all).

This morning I listened to Susana's music for the first time in a little while – as a way of
remembering those moments when I first discovered her. Those moments watching her sing
right in front of me. A wonderful combination of beauty and heartbreak. Of company and solitude.
And to me right now: of brown, yellow, and rusty orange, and that first chilly rain of the season.

If you haven't experienced her music, please make time for it, and if you'd like to discover more
about her incredible talent and love for Afro-Peruvian music and history, I welcome you to read
what I've written about her right here on the website.

Sunrise on Saturn

Today NASA and the JPL announced that the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, which was
to end in July 2008, will be extended another two years.

For me, this is great news.

It was July 2004, after a seven-year journey from Earth, when the spacecraft Cassini first
approached Saturn and began to send back images. I remember them clearly. Each day
it was such an incredible thrill as the new images would draw us just a bit closer. And the
beautiful planet would grow just a bit bigger, as if we were all passengers along for the ride.
Absolutely amazing.

And in the four years since, the mission has uncovered amazing things: a tiny moon that orbits inside a gap between the rings; and two moons, Janus and Epimetheus – despite sharing the same orbit around Saturn, one never touches the other.

The photo and video archives are stunning, and certainly worth a moment of your time.


Thank you

To Grimanesa, Susana, Piers, Magali, Hélène & Célia, and Havana, whose interest and
participation came at a time when this project was not much more than a few sentences
written on a scrap of paper in my pocket.


A friend asked me to tell her a bed-time story over the phone last night. I thought of a setting,
and ideas of Monaco and the Grand Prix began to spin.

I haven't been to Monaco. But as I began to set the scene for my friend, thoughts turned back
to the mid-century. And typewriters. And a journalist watching from his apartment balcony as
cars raced through the streets below.

There's a romance about that scene – and at that moment everything balanced on a distinct
and solitary thought: The sound of a typewriter.

In a short story, Rudyard Kipling once shared a similar feeling about the sound of billiard balls
colliding. And really, how right he was. We hardly need the use of our eyes to know when that
solid ivory sphere begins rolling across felt-covered slate, and then...clack! So distinct.

And this image in my mind, reporter typing away from the balcony...how peaceful. All you'd hear
is the tick-tick-tick of his typewriter, and a distant whispering of the Mediterranean Sea.

But every one-and-a-half minutes the race cars would come roaring around the bend, and for
just a few moments that unmistakable sound of slender, metal typebars hitting paper would be
drowned out.

Then, as the cars continued northward through the streets and buildings, their wailing engines
would fade out and the tick-tick-tick would slowly emerge once more.

Really, a beautiful little cycle. Every one-and-a-half minutes. All afternoon.