Halloween? Bah! Humbug!

If you’re not interested in reading curmudgeonly writing, skip this entry. I’ll be back to my regular upbeat writing personality soon enough. Today, however, is not that day.

I groused on Facebook this morning that Halloween is so NOT my holiday. My plan is to steer clear of it. Sorry, folks, but I’m willing to own the title my friend Angela applied to me: “The Scrooge of Halloween.” Guilty.

Have I worn costumes on Halloween? Yes, occasionally, and by that I mean every 5-10 years or so. I wore an Indiana Jones costume at a science fiction convention in 2008, and I didn’t wear it well because I was the better part of 30 to 40 pounds overweight. And I brought said costume because others more or less expected it of me, it wasn’t something I was excited to do. Which brings me to an important aspect of Halloween: it’s very much an extrovert’s holiday, as the goals are to stand out, be loud, go to a lot of parties, and look or act oddly around others. I’m odd enough already.

I’m also not a fan of horror, terror, and other off-kilter emotions that usually result from experiencing or witnessing something awful or terrifying. People actually pay good money to experience these sensations in a theater and it baffles me. If you don’t enjoy those feelings in reality, as I do not, you probably don’t understand the desire to have them imposed artificially. Mind you, I do read and write fiction on occasion, but most of my stories aren’t in the Stephen King genre.

And before someone tells me to “lighten up,” spare me the lecture. I’ve heard it. All this stuff is just not my thing. I understand some people–even introverts–dig Halloween. It’s an opportunity to wear a mask and be someone different for a day. Bully for you. Glad you enjoy yourselves.

I’m more of a Christmas guy. The emotional tone and emphasis are more in line with my mood: giving, celebration, maybe a little kindness or solemnity thrown in. But hey, that’s me. Speaking of Christmas, there’s something else I’ve noticed: generally people who really REALLY love Halloween are often not that big on Christmas. Go figure.

There are other snobby, uptight things I could write, but I’ll leave it at that. I’m not trying to be a spoil sport for others, just explaining why I don’t get all that excited about October 31st. However, Halloween candy gets marked down 50% tomorrow. I’ll see you then.

Eating My Salad Upside Down and Other Reflections on Adulthood

Sometime in the last year I decided to start making my salads upside down.

Some of you might get this immediately, especially if you’re not a huge fan of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, or any of those other leafy greens that always seem to form the base of any salad you’ve seen. That bed of green stuff is covered with cucumbers or tomatoes or something mildly interesting, and then those items are garnished with cheese, olives, peppers, and things that actually stimulate your taste buds.

I frickin’ hate salad because eventually, once I get through the interesting stuff on top, I’m left with lettuce. And like I said, I’m not a fan.

So earlier this year, being the only grownup in my home, I made the unilateral decision to put the interesting stuff into the salad bowl first: cheese, peppers, olives, marinated artichokes, what have you. Then the tomatoes go in, then cucumbers and, occasionally, the stupid lettuce. No, it won’t win any aesthetic or culinary awards, but it’s finally in a form I don’t mind eating because the good stuff comes at the end.

I work and pay my bills this way, too, so I guess that’s where it started. I try to do the big, ugly, un-fun projects (editing or re-editing large documents, for example) first so I can savor the time doing things that I enjoy, like creative copy or maybe even fiction. I pay the big, scary bills (rent, credit card, utilities, car payment) before I set aside money to go out later in the week.

The logic to this approach, is that I need to do the boring, unglamorous stuff first so I have something to look forward to at the end of it. Consume all that interesting stuff up front and you’re left with a long, hard slog afterward.

Next step: eating ice cream sundaes upside down. Anyone with me?

Mars in 2015–Books, Movies, and Reality

In the last month I’ve been indulging in a bit of Mars mania. I read Andy Weir’s book The Martian, followed by the movie starring Matt Damon, which was based upon the book. On the heels of this double helping of The Martian I read Rescue Mode, a new science fiction novel by Ben Bova and a NASA friend of mine, Les Johnson.

Both books go to superb lengths to achieve engineering realism in depicting hardware for getting to and living on Mars. The Martian focuses on one man who is stranded on the red planet while Rescue Mode concentrates on the efforts of a crew of eight astronauts whose vehicle is severely damaged on the way to Mars. Different problems, but same stakes: survival beyond the Earth.

The Martian 

The Martian is written entirely in the first person and the protagonist–portrayed well in the movie by Matt Damon–concentrates more on the lone astronaut’s Robinson Crusoe-type challenges with nature using the tools at hand. The movie gives more life to the characters “off screen” in the book. I found the book hilarious, probably because it was easy to identify with a sarcastic white guy who’s a Chicago Cubs fan and has an occasionally profane manner of expressing himself.

The movie version of astronaut Mark Watney is a bit more subdued, perhaps not quite as juvenile, but an admirable character nonetheless. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Matt Damon’s acting is excellent while the movie overall is simply good. The movie has some long stretches of just watching a rover move across the lonely Martian landscape. Or, as someone pointed out about The Lord of the Rings, just a lot of walking. The novel of The Martian needs to keep the reader engaged–in my case, I devoured the book in a couple of days–and so has a few more problems to solve. And there’s just more opportunity for smart remarks by the narrator.

Another thing Weir (and director Ridley Scott, to his credit) handles well is giving all the technology a real-world feel, complete with acronym-heavy jargon, rules and regulations, and a good feel not just for what things are designed to do but what they can be made to do in case of emergencies. Even duct tape makes a good showing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to being faithful to the book is that Weir’s (Watney’s) profanity does not make the movie exactly kid-friendly. S-bombs, F-bombs, cussing galore. Depending on how old your kids are and how much profanity they’re used to, they can probably start watching this film at around age 10-12 (the film is PG-13, though I’m surprised it didn’t make R). It’s not that I’m a huge prude when it comes to cussing, but that does mean limit the age range for kids to watch the story and get inspired by its can-do spirit. Regardless, the book and the movie are great fun and manage to capture an Apollo 13 level of what author David Brin calls “competence porn” set in space as Watney moves from bare survival to problem solving to transcending his situation. I might need to go back to the theaters for another shot at viewing it on the big screen. Worth it.

Rescue Mode

Rescue Mode, which to my knowledge isn’t being made into a movie yet, is a different project. It still features peril on a Mars mission and requires a lot of technological competence to put things right. However, instead of concentrating on one character’s efforts or point of view, Bova and Johnson write about a crew of eight: four men, four women, with a mix of nationalities and races, plus a variety of NASA people and politicians back on Earth. In this way, Rescue Mode is a more mature (in the literary sense), complex, and ambitious work.

The crew includes some rivalries, sexual tension, and personality clashes that add a bit of humanity to the astronauts. The Martian, by contrast, isn’t quite as diverse or nuanced–the primary motivation for most of the off-stage players is dedication to duty. On the whole, the character interactions are handled well, including some eye rolling by the other characters when one of them says something that might be taken as stereotypical in some fashion.

The book is a little slow to start as we’re introduced to the crew and the political players, but once the crew get into space, the pace picks up quickly. You might wonder what sort of political drama is included in a book ostensibly about space exploration. In this case, the authors chose to depict a battle in Washington, DC, over the continued funding of human space exploration, with the president for it and an ambitious senator trying to shut down the Mars program as “too dangerous” and “wasteful.”

One thing I found interesting in comparing The Martian and Rescue Mode is that both books seem to have used the same (or similar) NASA reports in designing their spacecraft and other hardware. Not surprising, I suppose–if NASA manages to get to Mars in the near future, realism demands that you use the hardware they say they’re going to use. Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts about Mars exploration in the real world of 2015.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Both of these books assume something that right now is not foreseeable, or maybe even realistic: the political will to spend the money and time to build all that NASA wants to build to get humans to Mars. The Martian just assumes that it happened without questioning the how or why. Rescue Mode takes a shot at explaining how it might be done with solid support from a U.S. President. Bova and Johnson note that their mission takes place late in the supporting president’s term and that the program would be vulnerable to the next president to come along–even if that president came from the same party. I don’t fault Andy Weir for this–he’s telling an rollicking good adventure story. Bova and Johnson wrote an adventure story but had larger fish to fry, as they try to make a larger political case for human spaceflight. Realistically, any actual future that includes a massive human mission to Mars or even back to the Moon will need to address the politics of it.

Another political point Rescue Mode makes is that the people most likely to benefit from closing or cutting back on NASA-led human space exploration would be commercial entities like SpaceX. Indeed, Elon Musk has stated that he wants to send people to Mars. The book includes a spaceport in New Mexico and makes reference to other commercial enterprises in Texas, Florida, and on the Moon. The real political battle over human spaceflight is not really between people who want it and those who want to close it down but between differing visions of how it should be carried out–and by whom: should the future glory go to NASA or a dedicated billionaire? The Martian doesn’t depict this battle per se, but it clearly stands behind NASA getting the job; Rescue Mode shows NASA having the job but facing pressure from others who would prefer that they don’t.

If it seems strange to be pro-space exploration but anti-NASA, it probably is–just as it’s strange that a Democrat administration is more supportive of commercial space while Republicans are favoring a large government program. However, if you spend some time observing the space business in the 21st century, you will see that we live in strange times. Welcome to the future.