20 July 2009

Never a Small Step

"The day", to my grandparents's generation, was December 7th.

To my parents', it was November 22.

To me, and to my generation, "the day" is today - July 20.

I like to think that Neil Armstrong fumbled the first half of his famous quote because the false humility stuck in his throat.

It was never a small step. It was always and only a giant leap, and everyone knew it. Armstrong knew it, because he and everyone he worked with signed up for a giant leap, and would never have settled for anything less. Kennedy knew it; he gave the call Armstrong answered. Kruschev knew it, behind all his bluster.

And I knew it, and so did all my fourth-grade friends on Robin Hill drive in Williamsville, New York. That leap defined my generation and set us on our path. The Beatles and the race to the moon were the soundtrack and the backdrop to our childhood (and Walter Cronkite, who's left us just this week, was our narrator.) Armstrong's leap, and his footprint, told us everything we needed to know about how the world worked. It told us that anything we could imagine was possible.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are one section at the bookstore, but they're not the same. Fantasy is the fiction of what can never be; science fiction is the fiction of what has not been yet. The generation of kids before me read fantasy - Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. We read science fiction; Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke and the others. And we watched Star Trek.

NBC cancelled Star Trek just two months before Armstrong took that giant leap for us all. But it was too late - all of us, we 10-year-olds, had been watching, and Armstrong had proved it could really be done.

We remembered. Gene Rodenberry gave Captain Kirk a flip phone in 1966 just as NASA was winding Gemini down and planning for Apollo and the moon. When we got to be old enough to work for companies like Motorola and Nokia, we built that flip phone (Kirk called it a "communicator"), and we gave it to you. Because, after all, that's what Armstrong would have done. And we built lots of other things too; the talking computers and giant electronic encyclopedias and autopilots and phasers we learned about by reading Amazing Science Fiction and watching Star Trek.

My kids' generation is reading fantasy again; Harry Potter. Their day is September 11. Things like that matter; still, I hope they know Armstrong leaped for them, and that if they leap, they can leave footprints too.

19 July 2009

Remembering Frank

Frank McCourt died today.

Frank was famous for Angela's Ashes - his account of his "miserable Irish Catholic childhood". If you haven't read it, you should. He was a wonderful writer.

Mostly by chance, I had the pleasure of spending a week on a bus with Frank. Karen & I signed up for a Photo Mentor Series trek to Ireland in 2003. The Ireland trip was unique among the Photo Mentor series treks in that it had a local host who wasn't a photographer, and Frank was that host. I took the above picture of him in the pitch-dark interior of the Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle peninsula.

The photo mentors - Barbara Kinney, Jill Enfield, and Joe McNally, - were fantastic; Barbara had been Bill Clinton's White House staff photographer, Jill is a leading expert in hand-coloring photographs, and Joe shot the first digital cover for National Geographic.

Frank and Joe hit it off immediately; they were both Irish boys who'd attended Catholic school and come away with a decidedly mixed view of the experience. And they were both master storytellers. They bickered constantly from their seats in the front of the bus about whether it was a more miserable life to be a writer or a photographer. Frank's books give you a hint of what he was like, but they don't really convey how warm or how funny he was as a person.

What they do convey is what he was most passionate about: his hatred of suffering. Angela's ashes is all about that.

It showed in person, too; as we walked up to the Killarney Cathedral, a historical marker caught Frank's eye. The marker said that construction of the cathedral had begun in earnest in 1846. Frank exploded. "1846 was the WORST year of the famine...", he began. I don't even remember if he finished the sentence, but his meaning was clear. The church had spent its money piling up stones instead of feeding its faithful, suffering people.

When we sat down later in the pub, Frank said there were three things every visitor to Ireland must do: see a horse race, attend a mass, and drink a pint of Guinness. Then he narrated the ritual of the pouring and drinking of the Guinness, and remarked that the foam on the top of a properly poured pint was known to the Irish of his youth as a "collar" because of its resemblance to the priest's neckwear. A trekker asked him, this being the case, why we needed to attend the mass and drink the Guinness, and he answered "to see which of them is false".

Frank got to see the end of most of Ireland's suffering; he told us as we were preparing to leave for home that the combination of European Union money and high-tech jobs for highly literate English speakers had transformed Ireland into a place his parents could not have imagined and would not have recognized. He said that without nostalgia; he was happy to see the poverty and the misery pass away, though they had given him the wonderful stories he left for us all.

I suspect Frank would disapprove of any mention of flights of Angels, so I'll pass all that in silence. We're poorer without him.