Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Club Review: 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth' by Col. Chris Hadfield

Full disclosure: I'm not sure you can refer to it as a book club if the only member is you. And you read approximately 2 books per year. Although I sped through this one in about 5 months so I'm actually ahead of the curve for 2015. Also, my wine to pages read ratio is a bit skewed. But that may be par for the course for most book clubs.

Space. It is our, seemingly, final frontier. We found the gold in California and tamed the waters of the Colorado River. Naturally, our gaze would shift upward...toward Heaven. Or as close as we can possibly get and still be able to return. I remember when shuttle launches were still a topic of conversation around the dinner table. An entire day was planned around being able to be in front of the TV by T-5 minutes. The rockets blasted, the fires blazed, that blinding white projectile shaking visibly as it inched upward toward a cloudless Florida sky. I remember holding my breath...especially after the unimaginable tragedy of the Challenger Shuttle. We, as a nation, began to doubt the space program. Was it worth the risk? Can we send robots instead? Over time, the shuttle launches that followed barely registered on my radar. NASA wasn't relevant to me. What's the point anyway? And how hard could it possibly be to be an astronaut? I've flown on airplanes dozens of times. So that one just goes a bit faster. You get the invaluable reward of being weightless when you reach the other side. Isn't that worth a few g's? I can drink Tang. I can totally be an astronaut.

My parents used to tell me that I can be anything I set my mind to. It's a great sentiment and I'm sure Dr. Sears would be proud, but it's total horsecrap. I can't be anything I set my mind to because genetics has blessed me with strengths in some areas and severe, debilitating weaknesses in others. Like geography. And physics. And calculus. One of my bucket list items is to someday understand the purpose for sin and cos. (And to my high school boyfriend from Spain, I'm terribly sorry that I thought you were from South America.) So, obviously I'm never going to be a mapmaker or a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. And Blue probably won't be either. But that's OK because we can become equally important and contributing members of society in other fields. We can also read books by people like Col. Chris Hadfield and appreciate what it takes to accomplish so much at such a young age. Spoiler alert: it takes more than a jug of Tang and a couple of round trip tickets to Chicago.

I first heard Col. Hadfield interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air last fall. He was clever, insightful and delightfully engaging. As a Canadian, he was an astronaut-wannabe without a space shuttle. Canada had a space program but nothing to launch. So, after watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, he began making decisions that would hopefully set him on a course that intersected with NASA. In high school he earned his glider pilot's license with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets then went on to earn an engineering degree and an advanced aviation degree. In the meantime, he became a fighter pilot and a test pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force...all the while just hoping it would lead to a spot in Houston. No guarantees. Ultimately, he completed 3 space missions; the third trip lasting 5 months. He performed 2 space walks, which are infinitely more tedious than I had ever imagined. And he has worked on the the ground crew for countless other space missions...providing insight, solutions and invaluable support.

Throughout his book, Col. Hadfield draws many parallels between life in space and life on earth - most of which are counter-intuitive. Sweat the small stuff...because that could head off disasters that loom down the road. Think negatively...what's the next thing that can kill you? And then develop plans A-D for dealing with that scenario (OK, in this regard, I could have totally been an astronaut). But what resonated most with my view on the human race was aim to be a zero. Simply put, approaching any situation with the attitude that you will neither cause great harm (-1) or bring about great good (+1), you will become a zero and that is ideal. We encounter this +1 attitude a lot in the Army...more so on the Soldier side than the spouse (although I have come across some annoyingly competitive spouses). When the brass enters the room, everyone is quick with a question that is sure to make that 2-star look twice at the person asking it. I've witnessed Neal return home from many drill weekends weary from Soldiers trying to prove their knowledge, skill or military prowess. Ironically, when you work so hard to be a +1, it usually results in others perceiving you as a -1. Aim for zero and sometimes you will end up as a +1 in everyone's eyes.

Col. Hadfield offers many other nuggets of not-quite-common-sense advice. Sprinkled throughout are chunks of wisdom that he has garnered from working with colleagues in a strict and structured environment. From maneuvering around certain personality types to dealing with your own reaction to criticism, it's just as much a self-help book for the workplace as it is entertaining storytelling. He has also included a few more intimate passages that offer a glimpse into his family life with a wife and 3 kids. Much like life in the military, Col. Hadfield missed countless birthdays, anniversaries and graduations because he was training, supporting a mission or flying a mission. He is honest about how his absence affected his family, which is a refreshing change from pretending that homecomings are easy and transitions are painless.

When the book goes out of print and the space program shifts in a whole new direction, Col Hadfield will still be famous for his rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity as performed from an orbiting International Space Station. If you haven't had the pleasure, here you go:
He credits much of the post-production work and cult-like success of the video to his son, who has mastered the art of social media. But I'm not on Twitter or Instagram so I totally missed it. I'm sharing with you because it will be the best 6 minutes of your day.

Col. Hadfield has become an ardent spokesperson for NASA. His unmatched enthusiasm for the space program and what we are capable of (even as NASA's budget is constantly whittled) is contagious and by the end of the book, I became aware of a growing, insatiable craving to know more about space, the solar system and what we are doing up there. This book does that to people. Space could not possibly be further from your mind and suddenly it is all you can think about. You begin watching videos about how to brush your teeth in space, how to sleep in space, even how a wet washcloth behaves in space. Three minute snippets of your day that affect how you think about everything else that day. I read to be amused. I read to learn. I read to reach some deeper understanding. This book did all of that and more. 5 stars and a fist bump to Col. Hadfield, an astronaut rockstar who also has a way with words.

If you haven't yet fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Chris Hadfield-in-space videos, I encourage you to step in. It doesn't hurt and you may really like it once you get here. 

If you are interested in a more cohesive and academic review of this book, Adam Savage (of MythBusters fame) wrote a most brilliant piece for The Wall Street Journal here

Monday, July 27, 2015

Item #1: The National WWI Museum and Memorial

The First World War.

The Great War.

Also known as...the war that was barely mentioned in high school history...never to be studied again unless your college major was history (which it probably wasn't because, let's face it...that's every parent's worst nightmare. And WHAT are you going to do with THAT, missy? Huh?? Why don't you just go ahead and change your major to liberal arts so you can send me to an early grave? Because you'll NEVER be able to afford my long-term living expenses. In case you're wondering, when you tell your parents you would like to be a theater major, the response is almost exactly the same.) But if you do hold a History degree, good for you because it means you are probably quite passionate about history and you are exactly the person I want to teach my son.

The WWI Museum and Memorial was designed, seemingly, by some very passionate History majors. It's ranked #1 on Trip Advisor for Things to Do in Kansas City, MO. Therefore, it seemed fitting that it would be our first stop after lunch at City Market in Kansas City. We were traveling without Blue for the day, which worked out perfectly. Although this museum is not one shrouded in sensitivity and fresh wounds (like trying to navigate the 9/11 Museum with him last spring), there is a lot of reading (especially if your knowledge of WWI pre-dates 9/11). Stopping and reading with a non-reader is hard (even if that non-reader is not a toddler). We saw a couple of families with kids and they were sort of hammering through, stopping for the videos and anything shiny but sailing right past the reading and the smaller displays. My advice? Find a sitter or strap your child in a stroller and give them a new episode of Dinosaur Train and some headphones (for the record, I'm not a fan of that second option but sometimes the first option just doesn't exist). Although, if you are visiting with kids, check the website for Hands-On History opportunities. Generally at 1 PM on these days, staff will bring artifacts from the collection out and kids are encouraged to touch and explore these items. I don't know about you, but I had Blue at "touch".

Parking wasn't a problem because it was 2:30 PM on a Thursday during the summer when all of the kids are down the street at Crown Center. There is some parallel parking in front on both sides of a grassy median so I slid right in (thanks to my superb parallel parking skills). The Liberty Memorial is the most recognizable structure of the museum and strongly resembles Coit Tower in San Francisco. The museum and research center are housed below the tower and it's an easy stroll from the museum exit to the elevators that take you to the top of Liberty Memorial, which offers the best 360 degree view of Kansas City.
It was a stifling, yet overcast day so this isn't the most picturesque photo of the museum and Memorial but it gives you an idea of what you'll see upon approaching the building. Once inside, a greeter (I'm assuming a volunteer and veteran, judging by his age and the way all service members tend to sort of stand at attention when "at work"...even when they are 65+) met us at the door and quickly explained some pointers for navigating the museum. Most importantly, there are no bathrooms once you enter the main building. And where to stand to take the iconic photo of the Liberty Memorial's reflection against the field of poppies.

Oh, the field of poppies.

When I first read about this museum on Trip Advisor, I noticed many reviewers mentioning the field of poppies under the bridge at the entrance. A field of poppies? How beautiful! I wonder if you have to go at a certain time of year to catch them in bloom? Certainly they will be brown and wilty after the sweltering heat we've had for 2 weeks. Maybe we should wait until spring to go. But I wanted Shana to experience the museum and I don't know how many KC trips she has in her, so we added it to the list. As it turns out, I don't think the poppies are real. I could be wrong but we discussed it and we both agreed that, even from 15 feet above, they looked rather...silky. The poppies represent the service members killed in WWI...each poppy representing 1,000 combatant deaths, totaling 9,000 poppies under the glass bridge. That's a lot of poppies to keep alive. So, am I a brat for being disappointed that they weren't real? Yes, probably. But I got over it pretty quickly and was still sobered by the idea that each one represented 1,000 lives.
Before crossing over the bridge and into the museum, we stopped by the ticket desk to pick up the audio guides. When there's an audio guide available, I splurge for it because it's such an inexpensive way to enhance the experience. Often there are interviews with people directly associated with the museum, as well as tips for navigating the exhibits. Audio guides at the WWI Museum are $5 each and a regular adult admission is $14 (good for 2 days). If you are active duty military, your admission is always 50% off and spouses are $2 off. Wednesdays are always 1/2 price for everyone. Kids under 6 are FREE!

If you are in the 30-40 something set, chances are, you had a grandparent or great grandparent who served in some capacity during WWI, but you know nothing of their experiences because they died before you cared enough to ask. As it was, I couldn't even remember how the US ended up entering the war. Apparently, I'm not alone as this is the very first topic addressed in the audio guide. The war began on July 28, 1914 and the US didn't declare war with Germany until April of 1917 so much of the museum and guide are focused on war between the French, English and Germans. For example, the foxhole made its debut during WWI and each country's military had a different strategy for constructing one. A good deal of space was used to recreate each country's distinctive foxhole design. Small portals are inset within the walls with motion-activated speakers above so as you stick your head in to observe the design, it triggers the sounds of war and a narrator's voice describing the scene.

With trench warfare, came the inevitable...
 Nerve gas was first used during WWI and, as a result, the gas mask made its debut.
And, for the first time, America was truly united behind the cause. Everyone was enlisted to help fight The Great War. Housewives gladly collected their copper and aluminum. Civilians forfeited many comforts and luxuries for the sake of war.

One of the largest wall-mounted exhibits is a map of the countries involved in WWI, which is everything in red.

Countries in black remained neutral.
The largest group of neutral countries during WWI now spend all of their time trying to annihilate one another. Everyone who finds this deeply ironic, please raise your hand.

Throughout the museum, there are a few interactive displays (which we cruised past because that's where the kids flocked) and a couple of 10-15 minute videos. Both were well-done and actually enhanced the experience, as opposed to simply restating what was already presented. One of the films was projected onto a screen above life-size mannequins of troops in battle. If you are unmoved by this scene, there is no hope for you in this life.
Blue Star Moms was founded during WWI and they still profoundly affect our lives today. Every summer, they ask a lengthy list of museums in each state to offer free admission to active duty military and their dependents. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Neal, Blue and I dash around, visiting as many Blue Star Mom Museums as possible. This is just one of their many positive contributions but it is one that we are highly appreciative of every year.

The number of stars indicates how many sons (or daughters, now) you have serving overseas.

Of course, with war comes casualty and wounds. Amputations were common and military hospitals were archaic. Penicillin wasn't discovered until 1927 but Marie Curie did bring her x-ray technology to the front lines of WWI, which saved many.

One other display that I felt indicated the highest attention to detail was a wall of unit photos. They are mostly 5x7 pictures, each containing 100 men or more. It's hard to see much more than a sea of faces and uniforms. However, the museum added large magnifying glass that slides vertically and horizontally so that visitors can truly examine each photo.
What a unique and effective way to engage visitors. It's hard, as a mom, to not look at these photos and imagine these are someone's sons. It makes this Army Wife sad that war is ever waged.

As we finished up, we rounded the corner to a room that displayed full wall-size photos of the 3 cities that dominated the world at the end of WWI...which differed from the 3 cities in power at the beginning of WWI, posted in the first room of the museum. The final room leaves the visitor with a sense of hope for the prosperity that followed WWI, but also a sense of doom as we all know WWII was not far down the road.
We returned our audio guides and exited the side entrance, headed for the elevator that would take us to the top of Liberty Memorial. Once you reach the top, there are still about 40 cramped stairs to the observatory. They are sure to tell you this at the bottom, just in case you can't do the 40 stairs. And the elevator is still manually operated. There is no narration by the museum volunteer but he is happy to answer any questions you may have about the museum or the memorial. Once you reach the top, Kansas City is laid out before you.

Again, no filter. Just the haze of July and a bit of the smoke from wildfires in Canada drifting through.

Kansas City, MO natives are quite proud of the fact that they were able to construct and open the Liberty Memorial Museum by 1926. The Liberty Memorial Association and Kansas City citizens, together, raised $2 million in less than 2 weeks. It was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in November, 1926. By 1994, the building had deteriorated so badly that it was closed due to safety concerns. Local malls voluntarily displayed pieces from the museum's collection until the Memorial could be re-opened. Again, Kansas City natives banded together to repair and re-open their treasured museum. In 1998, they passed a limited-run sales tax to support the restoration, but plans to revitalize went international and the funds raised totaled $102 million. Not only did they restore, but they also expanded, now including many documents that had surfaced since the original opening in 1926. In 2004, Congress designated the museum as the nation's official WWI museum. There is also a functioning research facility under the Liberty Memorial.

I imagine that many of my fellow 30 and 40-somethings would view this museum and its collection as a monument to irrelevance. What do foxholes and war bonds have to do with us? Everything has changed. However, I would argue that besides it being a place to honor and pay respect to our WWI veterans, it's also a monument to the adage, "If you do not know your history, you are doomed to repeat it." At some point, we have to take responsibility for our own education. Skipping over it in high school is one thing. Driving your family right past it on the way to a Royals game is something else entirely.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Flying Monkey Report

We have finally arrived.

I lost one ruby red slipper at a casino in St. Louis.

Toto peed in the RV bed.

And Glenda promises that we will have a bright and sunny year here in Kansas.

So far, so good.

Living on a military instillation after living off for almost 5 years has been a refreshing change. The apartments feel like dorms for the 30-something parenting set - which suits us perfectly. While the boys are training, the ladies can sip sweet tea on our back porch and the kids have freedom to run in the courtyard. Last week, Blue collected roly poly bugs with the boys next door. He's the youngest but manages to find a way to get along, even as his vocabulary is still developing. If you stand at our sun room window, you can see not one, not two, but THREE playgrounds. And a baseball diamond. And a skate park. We watched T-ball camp take place last week (in brutal 100+ degree heat indices, no less. We watched them from the comfort of our 68 degree living room) and we venture across to a playground at least once a day. The Kansas Bucket List is already far lengthier than the Kentucky Bucket List was. Thus far, we have managed to cross off eating award-winning chocolate:

driving to Nowhere:

and getting an overall feel for the layout of the city:

It has been stupid hot (you may think I was using some fancy filter on the above pictures. I was not. That's just the haze of mind-melting humidity). We found and joined all of the air conditioned museums. And we now keep a permanent stash of water bottles in the freezer. But it's July so if it was mild and breezy, I would think Hell was dangerously close to freezing over.

The trip here was not completely uneventful. Soon after we arrived, one of our cats quit eating or drinking and after some rushed bloodwork, we found out that her kidneys were failing. After many tears, several long discussions with the vet and some quiet prayer on my part, we decided to say goodbye to her. There's not much to be done once a cat's kidneys begin to fail and she was in the advanced stages before she ever started showing signs. As Mama Virgo said, "Keeping her alive would simply be Kitty Hospice. Nothing will improve and she will only continue to decline." She's had cats for as long as I've been alive so I think she knows a thing or 2 on the matter. But it doesn't help in moments when I forget why only one cat is purring at my feet. Or every time Blue asks where she is. I miss her terribly and I'll always second-guess my decision. But I also believe that all kids and all cats go to Heaven so I know that Shep was there to greet her and now he has one of our family pets with him. That's oddly comforting.

I will say one word on the mass shooting in Chattanooga last week. What happened is a heartbreaking tragedy and, according to those taking credit, a fulfillment of their intentions - which is to attack our military on their home soil. I don't doubt that if this is mourned and then forgotten, it WILL happen again. Our Congress must act to ensure that our military and their families are able to protect themselves at all times. Tennessee authorized the use of side arms for National Guardsmen last week, to take effect tomorrow. Since many guard and reserve units are mostly open to the public and ALL recruiting offices are wide open, this terrorist attack must be taken seriously. I don't know why more hasn't been done by the White House to honor the victims, but I know enough to know that there is a sea of things going on behind the scenes. We only know a tiny fraction of what is going on in Washington and that's only when they allow us the quickest peek behind the curtain. I'm not one to assume that nothing is being done simply because I don't SEE anything being done. But I can certainly hope that our President has addressed this to the fullest extent of his office. This is truly a wife's deepest fear. You can mentally prepare for deployment and the wages of war. But you can't mentally prepare for a Thursday afternoon. I pray for the families of the fallen. America has lost 5 brave men. What an undeniable loss.

I will begin reviewing some of the area attractions over the coming weeks. We have barely slowed down enough to bathe regularly and brew some beer (by the way, if you ever take up homebrewing, never store the fermenting beer in your pantry. At first, it smelled like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Now, it most certainly does NOT). But we have still managed to miss the lavender harvest for 2015 and we didn't quite make it to all of the Amelia Earhart Festival in Atchison (although we caught the fireworks and they absolutely rival those in D.C. on the 4th of July). So, it will be my honor to share photos and thoughts with you should you ever find yourself blowing through Kansas, whether you're on the winds of change, or not.