Friday, January 29th, 2010

I’ve been listening to misty-eyed Salinger fans sobbing about what an All-American Novel Catcher In The Rye was and feeling more than awkward about my guilty little secret: It’s not my favorite Salinger novel.

It’s good and all, but honestly I thought Salinger was a much better short-story writer than a novelist. And the only reason I say that is not that I have some kind of cutting insight or I hold the all-seeing knowledge of what makes a good short-story writer versus a novelist. It’s simply that I like his short stories better. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more delightful story than A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist At All.

And that’s as may be, but as for his novels (although probably it should be considered a novela) I just love Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters. I read a review of it in The New York Times today, because everyone’s venting their opinions about Salinger this week, that was none too kind, and I had to wonder how closely he’d read it. Or how many times. I don’t think you can appreciate Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters until you’ve read it at least a half-dozen times, and you shouldn’t be writing a review of it for any newspaper, and especially not The New York Times, until you’ve taught a class on it. Or maybe I’ve just gone over the line. Yes, I see I have.

Obviously I haven’t taught a class on it or I would be able to pin down just why I like it so much. I love it mostly for Buddy Glass, the person I most wanted to grow up to be, a hermetic writer living in the woods with no phone, penning novels using a fountain pen and occasionally emerging to teach humanities at a local university.

And I loved it for the rest of the characters, too. Outrageous caricatures that they were, I just loved them. As much as everyone mentions the tiny top-hatted man, I have no idea what he’s supposed to be in the story. I love him but he’s a mystery to me. My favorite character, after Buddy, is the loud-mouthed Matron who dominates the dialog. Every time I meet someone like that, and goodness there are an awful lot of people like her, aren’t there, my imagination sucks me into a limousine with no air conditioning stuck in traffic on a New York street, and I blank out on everything else but the hell of what it would be like to spend an afternoon trapped like that.

Oh, I can see I’ll be up half the night reading it now. But that’s all right, it’s Friday. I can take a break from my must-finish book and re-read a little Salinger tonight.

Salinger | 8:47 am CST
Category: books, entertainment, play
Comments Off on Salinger

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Our regular Saturday stop at St Vincent de Paul’s thrift store yielded only a few treasures this week. My Darling B didn’t find one old platter or kitchen gadget that caught her fancy. I, on the other hand, found a little treasure called The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Space.

I’ve got so many books about manned space exploration at this point that B makes fun of me whenever we go to the thrift store. If I’ve got an armload of books and one or more is about the space program she acts shocked, as if she didn’t expect that, and if none of them were written by or about astronauts, well, she acts shocked again. I can’t win for losing.

I had to take this one home because it’s big and thick as a tombstone and packed with iconic photos of spaceflight through the years. It was the photos I was after most of all.

But what always gets me about this book and others like it is that they never answer the one question that everyone asks sooner or later, the one that the congressional intern blurted to Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13: How do you go to the bathroom in space? Looking through this and other so-called encyclopedias, you would think they didn’t. There isn’t a toilet to be seen anywhere.

And that’s because, until the space shuttle, there weren’t any. The first astronauts were in space for such a short time (Alan Shepard went suborbital, lobbed like a cannonball for a trip of just fifteen minutes, and John Glenn was in orbit just a few hours) that they just peed in their suits if they had to go. Later, when they were in orbit for days, there wasn’t enough room in the spacecraft to sneeze, much less take care of hygiene, so they wore absorbent underpants – diapers, essentially – in case they really had to go. Most of the astronauts tried their damndest not to use them, for obvious reasons.

It takes three days to travel to the moon, though, even when you’re hustling along at a speed faster than a rifle bullet. Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface just eleven hours, but later missions lingered on the moon for days, so they had to finally give some consideration to The Big Question. And the makers of Apollo 13 half-answered it: The Apollo capsule had a “relief tube” that would vacuum liquid waste away with the flick of a valve. One of the details they omitted, though was that they had to be very careful when they opened the valve, lest delicate equipment get sucked away, too. The vacuum of space is relentlessly brutal.

But not even Ron Howard wanted to hint at the answer, How do you go Number Two? Because it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of … not. There’s no way to poop in a pot because, as the astronauts loved to demonstrate, everything floats in space. Who hasn’t seen them squirting food around and snatching it out of the air with their mouths? Well, what goes in must come out, and it still floats then, too, and obviously nobody wants to go chasing that around the cockpit.

What they came up with was a plastic baggie that had a brim around the opening, so it sort of looked like an old man’s hat. The brim had an adhesive strip to stick the thing to their butts and keep it from floating away while they were doing dookie, which probably sounded like a great idea to the guys who designed it. They obviously didn’t have hairy butts. Using one of these, and then trying to clean up after, was such a miserable experience that, again, astronauts tried as hard as they could not to use them.

Most people know that the space shuttle has a toilet. Finally, space travel had the answer to The Big Question. What a lot of people don’t know is that astronauts are specially trained to use it because it’s critically important that they sit with their cheeks snug against the seat, and that they sit in the middle of the seat.

The first part is not so difficult: The toilet has a couple padded swing arms to hold down a pooping astronaut. His butt has to be firmly kissing the seat because the toilet sucks air down past the astronaut’s thighs to keep doo-doo moving in a southerly direction, and a snug fit ensures a brisk flow of air.

To make sure the Merry Little Breezes will carry away every little turdlette, though, an astronaut must sit squarely in the middle of the seat. This is critically important: The point of emission must be centered pretty much exactly in the middle of the opening of the toilet.

Not too many people know when their exhaust pipe is centered precisely over the toilet bowl, because they don’t have to, but astronauts do. To make sure they do (I really love this part), Nasa built a training toilet. It has a video camera pointing up from the bottom at the underside of the seat. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

In toilet training, the astronaut drops trou, plants his fundament on the seat and then, watching the image of his bare bupkis on a monitor, his very own hairy butthole, he walks his cheeks around on the seat until he manages to center his anus on the crosshairs that Nasa paid a technician to tape across the screen.

I don’t know how many times they practice this or if they’re graded, and I’ve never heard of anyone washing out of the astronaut corps for failing toilet training. If I had to guess, I’d say they run through it once, maybe twice at the very most. A guy can be expected to endure only so much of that kind of indignity.

To my knowledge, the toilet on the shuttle does not have a camera.

the final frontier | 2:02 pm CST
Category: books, entertainment, play, random idiocy
Comments Off on the final frontier