February 03, 2003
Unpacking Reality

First, a warning in the form of a spoiler: my favorite part of Mulholland Drive is the sequence in Club Silencio. The emcee tells the audience (in the film and of the film), "No hay banda" - there is no band. Then Rebekah Del Rio comes out and sings a capella and in Spanish Roy Orbison's "Crying". Itís beautiful. Itís heart-breaking. Itís completely absorbing. The movieís lead characters, sitting in the audience, cry. I cried, too.

And then Del Rio suddenly collapses, but the recorded music goes on. Itís not real. There is no band. We were warned.

Hereís what I wrote on Saturday afternoon:

On January 28, 1986, I was in a fourth grade classroom.

When I was in fourth grade, if youíd asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said, "Go to Cal Tech and work at JPL." I would have given the same answer up through the first semester of eleventh grade, when I discovered that trigonometry and I donít get along.

But in fourth grade, I didnít know that one day even the word "cosine" would give me a headache. I did know that the Voyager space probes had just sent back pictures of Saturn, and they were beautiful, like the stars over our desert suburb. I knew the names of the stars, mostly Arabic-based, and the names of the constellations, with their Greek or Latin.

Columbiaís first landing, the first landing of any space shuttle mission, happened not far from my familyís house, at Edwards Air Force Base, in 1981. I wasnít there, but my brother was, and he came home with a bright green bumper sticker with a line drawing of Columbia and the words I SAW IT LAND! He stuck it to the door to his bedroom, where I saw it nearly every day for ten years. Itís still there. I see it when I go home for Christmas.

On January 28, 1986, when I was in a fourth grade classroom, the school secretary came in and spoke softly to our teacher, who then spoke softly to us. We had a TV in the classroom, and I remember Mrs. Hurd struggling to switch to a broadcast instead of the bulky new VCR, and then trying to get the clearest station. She found one, and we sat in silence as we watched Challenger explode, again and again and again.

Years ago, well before September 11, 2001, I was at party where someone was talking about how nearly everyone of his generation knew exactly where they were when they found out John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and said that he didnít think there was an equivalent for my generation. Three of us looked at each other and said, "Challenger."

Today I woke up late, went into the kitchen to make coffee, and turned on the radio. I didnít hear what I expected - instead, I heard an interview with someone at NASA. The speaker was asking about the culture among the scientists there, whether they still felt or openly expressed the excitement about and fascination with space that brought them to this career, excitement and fascination that usually went back to childhood.

My first thought was that is must be a holiday - the last time I heard programming pre-empted this way was on a holiday. Then the next interview started, and I understood what had happened.

As soon as I re-read what Iíd written, I realized something was wrong. It didnít take much math (arithmetic, not trig) to recognize that I wasnít in fourth grade in 1986 - I was in ninth grade.

No hay banda.

Still, I couldnít shake the vividness of the memory, but I also couldnít make it fit together. Voyager really was sending back pictures of Saturn when I was in fourth grade, but that was 1980-1981.

It was both disappointing and a relief to realize I must have been thinking of how I found out about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, the year Columbia flew its first mission.

I may have been wrong about where I first heard about Challenger - with the interference of the other memory cleared up, I'm reasonably sure it was when I came home from school that afternoon - but I do remember the footage of the explosion, and its relentless repetition.

Generally Iím not someone who participates in displays of mourning about events in the news. Iíd kicked around the idea of starting a weblog the summer of 2001, but I put it off because after 9/11 I knew there would be only one thing to write about. I didnít think I had anything to say that hadnít already been said; I didn't think I felt anything that wasn't already a part of everyone.

So I'm a little surprised that I feel compelled to write about Columbia, to confess that on Saturday I found myself crying in my kitchen when I heard the news, and crying as I wrote about a memory that turned out to be less grounded than I'd imagined.