#FridayReads On Buzz After the Moon and My Life After McNair

I have nearly completed a memoir of sorts by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, written in conjunction with Ken Abraham, called Magnificent Desolation: Long Journey Home From The Moon. The title is a bit misleading, as it implies some not-known-about extra drama in the astronaut’s return, when really it refers to the many downs he experienced once his feet were firmly planted on Earth again.

The tale does begin with a brief look at Buzz’s and Neil Armstrong’s touchdown on the lunar surface, assuming I think that the reader is pretty familiar with their near loss of fuel in the lander, and of course that Neil was the first to exit and take “a small step” onto another world. Do not make the mistake of categorizing Buzz as the “second man” though, as he generally eschews this status, probably due to cultural baggage attached to such an assignation. After all, we Americans don’t like to lose!

One finds that the crux of the story deals with behaviors on which many may frown, and particularly alcoholism and two failed marriages. These stemmed from a deep depression that, Buzz speculates, may have been brought about by the actual trip somehow.

Whatever its origin, when an episode (he called it the “blue funk”would hit, he was rendered nearly unable to function.

This part of Buzz’s story effected me very deeply, especially as he struggled to define his life and significance after such a harrowing achievement. Most of us will never walk on the moon, but we can probably identify with the idea of reaching some peak in life and feeling that there’s no way we can best it. He kept trying though, eventually generating interesting ideas about Space travel that he worked into a Science Fiction (“I prefer to call it techno thriller” whatever that means) novel, and doggedly attempting to sell his ideas to the U.S. Congress. Not much of this was taken up, sadly, but he does start to emerge from his downers on the shoulders of a strong woman.

There is even an unexpected climax of sorts in this version of his post-lunar life. A fair warning, don’t talk to him about the possibility that no humans have actually landed on the moon, because he doesn’t want to hear it!

As I read this book, I reflected on another astronaut whose life tangentially influenced mine: that of Ronald Erwin McNair. Born in 1950, Mr. McNair received a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT and became only the second Black astronaut to travel to space. I am a bit surprised not to know the first, but should rectify that after posting. Anyway, McNair was on his second mission aboard Challenger, not the first as I had always thought, when it exploded on January 28, 1986. Everyone knows about that, primarily because of the school teacher who had also gone up. Buzz points out that after that accident, NASA was hesitant about allowing any civilians to get a seat, a point that continued to irk him for the rest of the shuttle’s “life”.

Back to the McNair story though, a program called the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate was created in his honor with the aim of helping underrepresented groups achieve success on the graduate level. I was fortunate to be awarded a spot in this program 15 years ago, and as I’ve probably said before it is that which convinced me to give grad school a second shot.

I remember the nerves of presenting at my first academic conference, and feeling I hardly knew what I was talking about. I had completed a 25 page paper on “Invisibility” among African American males, working under a great mentor. I also remember the fun travel to Georgia, (visiting three Atlanta-area universities) and Knoxville to attend a different conference at the University of Tennessee.

And, after that program, how the grad school offers rolled in. Prestigious institutions such as Duke, Brown, Stanford and UCLA wanted a piece of me, but I wouldn’t bite. It’s not hard to see how I felt that was MY peak. But I now see it as a valuable experience that shaped the backbone in me to let my “nerd” out and be proud of it. Thinking of that and reading Buzz’s story is helping me to finally snap out of my own “blue funk” that still lingered after my recent internship attempt. I’ve got the wheels turning, and think that more excitement is coming soon.

Up And Down: On My Trip to Asheville Part 2 

Quiet music tinkles on a grand piano as we step inside the restaurant. The squeak of the door, ornate, hanging chandeliers, and double-sided fireplace convey a sense of coziness and old-fashioned slowdown.

We approach the counter, (wait? No sit-down service? what’s this!) stand in line and order “a sausage egg and cheese biscuit, two cups of oatmeal, a medium orange and coffee, please.” We could just as easily have been purchasing one of those iconic sandwiches that essentially ushered in the fast-food era. That’s right, welcome to one of the most unusual McDonald’s in the US. Fancy, but yeah the food is still the same.

The acoustics are such though that we easily converse while injecting initial fuel, and deciding that seconds might not be a bad idea considering all of the walking we will be doing later. Satiated, we exit and traverse the few blocks between this location and the vastly fancier Biltmore Estate, a huge property owned at first by the Vanderbilt family on which George, a sibling living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, constructed a castle that rivals those in Europe.


A pic of me and my beautiful girlfriend standing in front of Biltmore House

Arriving at the ticket pickup desk at 12:30, we first encounter what threatens to be a big snafu.

“Your tickets have actually been purchased for the 17th,” the rep tells us. “Will you be here tomorrow?”

Oh good grief, I think to myself, could I have made a mistake of that magnitude with so much money on the line? The strange thing is the audio device I have reserved is indeed set to be had on Saturday the 16th. They do work us in anyway at 1:30, and when I check my email in the car I verify that the mistake was not mine! Thank goodness.

Even when we get out of the car at a space, we still have to walk about 8 minutes much of it uphill to reach the actual house. It is hot, quiet, and smells like it probably did in those early days.

Audio devices acquired, which were like telephones that you hold to your ear, we enter the spacious residence. Each exhibit has a number, and if one wishes to hear the descriptions and background information about said you just enter the number into the keypad. I had only purchased one, but am happy they have also gone ahead and given her one as well. I can’t speak what they’re saying quickly enough!

And as I discover in the Billiards room, the acoustics are such that one must be careful how they speak. “I THINK I HAVE PUT IN THE WRONG NUMBER!” I say when they start talking about an Italian-themed room instead. (Well I hope I’m not speaking that loudly, but it at least sounds so, prompting her to let me know this and causing me to feel a bit silly and not speak for the next three exhibits. The thing is, I feel as if the room is empty when in actuality it is full. So I can claim environmental unawareness while also accepting that I don’t exactly differentiate between “Indoor” and “Outdoor” voice as well as I should. But, I do manage to recover a bit.

This initial room is impressive, as well as the library (10,000 of Vanderbilt’s books still exist,) a sitting room where people wait for dinner, another where dinner is actually consumed, and I think a different entertainment hall. Yes, they had too much money. Finally, on the first floor we exit to the loggia, ah c’mon the back porch! It is a nice area, with I assume fairly nice views as well.

Then inside and up the “Grand Staircase.” I think the second floor contain the Vanderbilts’ rooms, and yes they had separate ones due to the idea that he shouldn’t see her being dressed by servants. They would often meet in yet another sitting room between the two. On the third floor, the guest level, there was ALSO a sitting room where they could gather to chat, because how much else was there to do in those days? A shortcut allows for quick access to the library, so that guests could find a title of their liking to take to bed and read.

Of course pretty much nothing can be touched, due to its fragile nature. Yet as a blind person, I still feel I got a lot out of it because of the in-depth descriptions given by curators and others affiliated with the estate in some way. I wonder if other museums have audio tours in this way. And, I can still feel the immensity of the space as well.

Even with the giant fans circulating air and many windows open, (until the rains came) the place is sweltering! This and the uneven surfaces cause us to need a quick break, during which we collapse into chairs in the hall. Nearly in unison, we say “oh, my back!”

The only other thing of interest is the basement. Here, we enter the bowling alley, probably one of the first of its kind in a private residence; the pool room, where that pool was fed with water from a mountain reservoir and had to be drained after use because of course this was prior to chlorination; and the innovative laundry room, wherein clothes could be dried by placing them onto racks and sliding them into a cabinet where electric coils raised the temperatures. The Vanderbilts had much of the latest technology, including Edison lightbulbs and a more efficient kitchen for the servants to use. They note that one could learn more about the servant’s life there by getting a behind-the-scenes tour, but I would also recommend the book I am now about to finish called Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist. As mentioned in a previous entry, much of it takes place at Biltmore, and it is a really intriguing story about a young woman who falls in love with the “useful man,” thus putting her chance of being Mrs. (Edith) Vanderbilt’s Lady’s Maid in jeopardy. It really helped me to understand a lot about how things were when I went in there, too.

Finally, we get stuck out front for a good while as those rains continue to pound. Luckily, they have sheltered benches where she meets and converses with a dogowner who has a stroller for her pets, and who has also a crown from winning some kind of Ms. East Texas. Another individual recognizes us from the trolley tour.

We make a perfunctory visit to some of the shops they have outside, including a chocolate place where I contemplate getting something but am not sure if I would like it. The café is also full, so we make our way through the last drops toward the shuttle to head back over to the parking lot.

And that about covers the interesting part of our little vacation into the hills and Asheville. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to whatever else life has in store, as well as to new and unexpected memories.

Up and Down: On My Trip To Asheville PART 1

I stated on my Facebook page that the most recent trip to the mountains was my first in 25 years. Upon reflection, perhaps this is a bit inaccurate as I’d gone to Denver in 2008. It is easy to forget the altitude of that city, because I had flown in. Also, Denver is definitely more level than Asheville, so I guess that would be another reason not to count it.

Well to generate a more correct statement, this was my first time riding into the mountains since October of 1991. On that trip, I had gone into the Smokies where North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee converge. I believe I even stood in all three states simultaneously. I walked a fun Braille Trail, which my orientation and Mobility teacher claims to have happened upon by accident but am not sure about that. I also stayed in a log cabin, ate at a fascinating country restaurant where a horse hit me in the head with its teeth as we cavorted around the barn area while awaiting our meals, and was entertained by an auction. SOLD!

One thing I had forgotten was how that drive uphill feels. As we speed away from my apartment, I key up the GPS app to monitor elevation. Durham is at approximately 500 feet above sea level. We take I-85 till it merges with 40; which, after splitting off toward Charlotte in Greensboro, pretty much carries us all the way to Asheville. Around Catawba, we are about 1200 feet above sea level. Our next major ascent occurs as we approach the edge of McDowell County, from approximately 1500 feet till about 2200 in three minutes or so. Whew! I feel this in my stomach and, more importantly, in my ears. I don’t know if the issue is permanent, but this seems to have caused my right-side hearing aid to fade out periodically until I lodge it back into my ear canal. It continues to do this throughout our stay, but (I think) is slowly returning to normal now that I am back down low. Needless to say, I dread this as a possible disaster that can ruin my weekend with her. Because it was on the right though, it was more endurable than it would have been on the left.

We level off a bit, as nothing is really level up there, in Black Mountain, and roll on into Asheville. As we arrive at our hotel, Baymont Inn and Suites, the sun is tentatively out with temperatures about 12 degrees below what they had been at our outset. She hops out to see if we can check in at the early hour of 1 PM, and is given a room. On further inspection, she discovers that this room is located near the laundry, with the sound of banging washers, dryers, and ice machines to accompany us to sleep. She rejects this location before even entering, and we are re-assigned to a better spot right near the elevator on the second floor.

After a brief respite, we decide to attempt to catch the Asheville Trolley Tour, which I discover can be done by trekking to the Asheville Visitor Center. We make the second-to-last departure, at 3 PM, and sit on slightly uncomfortable seats in a fairly open bus to take in the sights.

Don’t fear my starter,” the driver says as he hops aboard and shuts the door. I do not understand what he means until he keys the ignition and we hear what sounds like an engine that isn’t going to turn over. “It always does that trust me” he says as the vehicle finally roars to life.

It is an interesting tour, much of which I of course cannot now recall. We do pass the swanky Grove Park Inn and Spa, and I joke that I’ll check us into that one instead. We learn a lot about Thomas Wolfe, especially that he had initially been rejected by the town due to his dark portrayal of Asheville in Look Homeward Angel, a book I am slowly making my way through now. Funny though how becoming a bestselling author will change perceptions,. Now he has a plaza named after him, and tours of his residence are also available. He died of tuberculosis at a relatively young age, sadly.

The driver is humerous, and very willing to take questions. He also notes a restaurant, Little Pigs, a local BBQ joint where we opt to eat. People do indeed “hop on hop off” as you are able to do. We do not do this because the last tour has already passed, but if you can get on earlier I would highly recommend walking around downtown. They get a look at the Biltmore, but are not allowed onto the property. Finally, we roll through the campus of UNC Asheville, during which he asks us about our feelings regarding the UNC Duke rivalry. When I note that I am a Tar Heels fan and she a Blue Devil supporter, the driver says “And you’re sitting next to her?” I know, still working on correcting that minor error.

Toward the end, we discover that we could have boarded near the Doubletree Inn within walking distance of our hotel. They do note on the site though that it is best to start at the Visitor Center anyway, so I suppose all is well.

Back at the original location and having mostly missed a downpour as we schlepped along, we make the spot decision to head to Little Pigs, where we both get fried chicken legs and thighs, hushpuppies, slaw, and I think another vegetable I can’t recall. The chicken and Southern sweet tea hit the spot! I learned later through the reviews on Google Maps that they have Key Lime pie as well, and am disappointed I didn’t get a piece of that.

To wrap up the evening, we make a quick trek downtown to the music festivel that takes place every Friday at 5. The streets in that immediate area are blocked off, and the crowds large. There are a few food vendors, the the emphasis is on alcohol consumption as one can buy arm bands for $2 that allow for as much as one can handle. It does not take long for her to determine that this is not a good atmosphere for us, so we make our way back to the parking deck to head over to the hotel. This is pretty much the end of Friday. I will post about Saturday’s estate tour later.

A Redirection

So, the word came today regarding my attempt at an NPR Internship. At the moment, it’s a no. But I’m ok with that! I knew this was going to be a building up, a taking of steps.

Speaking of, I tried to find the cover letter I’d written for this position and am a bit dismayed that I hadn’t saved it! In it, I noted that this would be, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, “a small step in my preparation, but a giant leap toward my dream.” My dream was then, is still, and has been for fifteen years to work in some capacity for this network. I acknowledge of course that maybe life has something I don’t yet know in store for me, and so am open to that possibility as well. It’s as a quote I saw yesterday says so well: “A no isn’t a rejection, but a redirection”.

So my task now is to sit down with myself and decide on my next steps. I think first though that I can allow myself to feel what I’m feeling, at least for a night, which is a bit of sadness tempered with pleasure that I finally dared to dip my toe into the waters surrounding my ultimate destination. I think my most important “next steps” are to work on reshaping my resume and just trying to determine exactly what it is I wish to get out of a position, as well as what I can bring to it. Then I do need to acquire some kind of field experience (i.e. internship) so that when I complete my current Master’s I’ll be able to put it to use. I do understand that all of this will take time though, and appreciate your support and joining me as I think everything out.

This message came on the heels of a quiet, somewhat gloomy Monday anyway, the first back at work in nearly a month. To cheer myself up, and yes in addition to the reading I’m doing for class, I’m also reading three (3!) pleasure books. Two of them, Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and Maid to Match by DeeAnne Gist, take place in Asheville, the spot I will be heading to for vacation this Friday! I will probably do that sort of reading before visiting most places now, because it’s so easy to type in keywords and find a book on a place, and reading said books enhances my travel experience. I think these especially will, as I’m learning about the Biltmore Estate, a giant house that we will be visiting. But I’ll tell you that whole story after I’ve walked those grounds. At the moment, I’m so happy to have that to look forward to. Have you managed to go anywhere yet this summer? What did you do? More soon.

On Sharing

So, we reach the unofficial halfway point of the Summer: July 4th or US Independence Day. And, I want to write something this week but am again juiced after wrapping up class 3 of this graduate program (94 on final project, yay! So, I’ll just write a bit about what was a relatively nice weekend with friends and my girlfriend.

So, we left on Thursday to a small North Carolina town called Lumberton, where food is the thing. Our primary reason for going there was to celebrate a friend’s birthday and special occasion, and we did it up in style. I met a couple of people I hadn’t before, as well as getting to chat briefly with my cousin for only the second time this year. That is a big change to which I continue to adjust, just the fact that we’re starting to drift into our own circles. I know of course that this is to be expected as our lives begin to coalesce more and more around those of our partners.

Anyway, all of this chatting with folks familiar and not was great, offering support to my long-time friend was even better, but the real fun was in the eating! We went to, and took over, a Lumberton establishment called Candy Sue’s. This place has relocated 3 times, from a small former gas station to a warehouse a block long. I am told that they may have slightly overdone it spacewise, hoping initially that downtown Lumberton would develop around them. This hasn’t really happened, probably for the same reasons it hasn’t in many towns; promised money is just drying up.

Even so, these folks do have some good food! They shut us in a private banquet room, meaning that the only noise was generated by our party of 14 or so. And eventually that noise did become voluminous.

So too were the portions. We were paired off, and each two individuals got two main items and four sides in what were called “Bottomless Bowls,” which could be refilled upon request. I had meatloaf, mac and cheese, and green beans. My partner ate their barbecue specialty with dumplings and another vegetable I can’t now remember. I could have eaten some of hers, but was so stuffed after two plates of my own that I needed nothing else. I topped that off with some lemonade that was, ok, probably could have been better though. They also had real southern tea, which is to say sugar with a little tea in it, but I had already had some less sweet tea before arriving.

After consumption, we piled back into the fifteen-passenger van in which we had come, and kept it rocking while going back to my friend’s home, where we partied a bit longer and bounced around to my cousin’s iPod playlist. We also consumed delicious cupcakes, and I know it was delicious because it took me three napkins to get all of the vanilla frosting off of my lips. Ha, ha. Finally, we headed back to the new SpringHill Suites Lumberton to grab a few seconds of shut-eye before heading home the next day.

Much of the rest of the weekend was just relaxing with my girlfriend, and realizing the unexpected joy of having someone share in something I love. It’s silly I know, but I was touched by the act of her joining me in my routine of listening to NPR broadcasts at night. I often snatch a few seconds of listening while she is otherwise occupied, and then turn it off once she returns. But this time she asked me not to, and we laughed, and jokingly groaned, over some of the academically dense books they reviewed. It just showed me, as I already know, that I have to continue getting used to opening all of myself, even those things that I think maybe others won’t necessarily like, to someone who is getting close to me. I’ve just so rarely experienced it, as I’m only now in my longest relationship of a year and three months, but I’m cherishing every moment.

And excitedly, it looks like we will take a different sort of vacation rather than going to the beach, which will doubtlessly be done many more times. In a couple of weeks, we plan to head into the Blue Ridge Mountains and Asheville North Carolina. I am looking forward to it, and will probably capture my experience in some way. Till then, have a happy and safe 4th and a great Summer.