Monthly Archives: February 2021

Mars and More

Mazel tov to all of us! NASA has landed a new probe on Mars! It’s not the first; there have actually been a few. But this one, the Perseverance, is incredibly exciting due to its advanced technological capability. It’ll drive around the planet for 2 years, taking photos and measurements. It will also release the Ingenuity, a small 4lb helicopter drone, that will fly around the surface of the planet, traveling greater distance than the Perseverance can reach. The flight of the Ingenuity will be the first-time humans have achieved flight on another planet. Amazing.

The many tasks for the Perseverance include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

The Perseverance will also drill down for regolith samples that will be remotely picked up and brought back to Earth in 10 years. Finally, scientists will have the opportunity to find evidence that once there was life on Mars, organic matter of some sort. It is an extraordinary time for interplanetary exploration and knowledge.

What might it feel like to be the first humans examining Martian regolith? And perhaps the first humans to see actual incontrovertible proof that once there was life on Mars? It would be the start of a new era, and we’d never look up into the nighttime sky in quite the way we had before Perseverance.

When I read the way engineers have planned to get those samples back to Earth, and how long it would take to get them, I paused. Ten years… That’s a long time. And I want to be around to read about it, to see the photos, to listen to the scientists describe it.

Along with my hope to be in good health ten years from now, I also have a concern. In ten years, what will the world look like?  What kind of shape will our nation be in?  Will people care about these samples being fetched across space from almost 130 million miles ?

It could go so wrong. With so many in America still proclaiming lies about the recent presidential election, and so many held in thrall by dangerous, hate-inspired conspiracies, our nation could become a land covered in darkness by the eclipse of reason and strangled by white supremacy. This is not some idle anxiety. We all have more than enough proof to genuinely worry for the future of the United States as a freedom loving democracy, comprised of so many races and religions and points of origin.

One of the images that stubbornly sticks in my mind from the insurrection is a rioter, wearing a MAGA hat, beating a police officer with a flagpole; American flag still attached. It was such a devastating incident to witness. It was as if this criminal was desperately beating a cop to somehow beat back the truth of an America he could not countenance. His violence mirrored the sorriest part of the American story that has always been diverted from our eyes: that some white Americans are threatened by the other: Black, Brown, Jewish, Hispanic, LGBT, and so on. And when threatened, they will resort to violence and exclusion, whether by burning a cross, lynching a Black man, enacting Jim Crow laws, etching a swastika on a wall, passing anti-LGBT legislation, blocking American citizens from their right to vote… and so on…

There is, however, a counter-image. It’s from the Perseverance landing. This is not a reference to the first photo from Mars, though that was very cool. No. The counter-image is the photo taken of Mission Control personnel when they received the signal confirming the Perseverance had landed safely.

Remember all the movies and tv shows about space, and how Mission Control was always filled with white guys in white short-sleeve shirts, most of them smoking Camel straights? And remember actual Mission Control videos, and how they were, in fact, white guys in white shirts smoking Camel straights? Mission Control for the Perseverance was another picture altogether. No one was smoking. There were no white shirts, just blue polos.

The counter-image: even with their masks on, it was easy to discern that the room was filled with men and women. They were White and Black and Brown. They were Asian and South Asian. And they were cheering for and with each other.  People from six different continents collaborated, transcending the limitations of language and the infinitude of space.

What would it take for our nation to pin that picture to the bulletin board of our hearts? What would happen if we chose that achievement of communication and cooperation over the execrable acts of destruction and desecration?

My Teacher Chick Corea

Our teachers come to us from so many places. The classroom is, of course, the traditional location for learning. I remember some of my teachers so well. Mrs. Marshall, of 4th and 6th grade, taught me how to think critically about what I do and what I say. My 5th-grade teacher, Mr. Krupa, taught me how to carry a football. Mr. Kleiman, my Hebrew School teacher in 4th grade, taught me how to read and write Hebrew. At Wesleyan, Rabbi Michael Berenbaum taught me how to read traditional and contemporary texts and approach the Holocaust.

But we have so many other teachers in our lives, people who have never met us but whose impact is profound and everlasting. The writer Ray Bradberry taught about the wonderment of imagination through science fiction. The philosopher, Richard Rubenstein, taught me about the deepest dimensions of Jewish life after Auschwitz. A guy named Elliot taught me how to open my car’s frunk off of a YouTube video.

And then there’s music. Some lyricists have taught me how to express the pain of losing love. The first time I heard the Beatles For No One from the Revolver album, I was 13. Now, what did I know of real heartbreak? Not much. Yet that song knocked me sideways, and it prominently featured in subsequent breakups. It gave me insight into the vocabulary of emotion.

I’ve never met Paul McCartney, and I never had the pleasure of shmoozing with John Lennon. But they gave me more than entertainment. They gave me insight into the reaches of the human spirit. Lennon and McCartney rank up there with my reading teacher of first grade: they provided me with tools for perceiving the Universe and how I fit in it.

Then there are my jazz teachers, and there are so many. Today I am thinking about Chick Corea, a foundational jazz pianist, and virtuoso, who died yesterday. His death felt very sudden, and it hit me hard. His fellow pianist, McCoy Tyner, died almost one year ago. He was another favorite of mine. He taught me about the way music tells a story without lyrics.

McCoy played with a kind of power and energy that engaged me at the very core of my being. He taught me how to let go of the linear and step into the rarified air of improvisation and dare to follow one line, then another, then another… and then return to Earth, safe and sound.

McCoy did not go for funk or fusion. He was an acoustic piano man. While he didn’t disdain other musicians or their choices of expression, McCoy had his wheelhouse and pretty much stayed in it his entire career. I experienced him as a rather formal character, who could sometimes be austere even when he was swinging hard.

Chick Corea, whose chops were deep and mighty, taught me about the beauty of music and how it inspires and honors the human soul. His music touched me to my core.  Chick taught me something else, something about flexing to try new things and go other places. Chick created over 70 recordings and played on hundreds of others. His discography is jaw-dropping. He didn’t get hung up on labels. He played spectacularly intricate solos that pushed into avant-garde jazz. He played flamenco melodies. He played with Bobby McFarren. One of his last releases was a virtuosic recording of classical music.

My teacher, Chick Corea, taught me to transcend traditional boundaries. He pointed out that the unifying quality of music transcends the channels through which it flows. Chick could and did laugh and groove during a performance. He could also be very focused and intense.

Yesterday my teacher, Chick Corea, died of cancer. He was from Chelsea, MA. His given name was Armando Anthony Corea. He taught me all about the beauty and multi-dimensionality of music. He taught me that life is about revering traditional forms and then stretching to embrace as much as possible that is new and exciting. I will miss him.

Old Guy

I watched the first Superbowl with my father in January of 1967. The Chiefs and the Packers played in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It wasn’t actually billed as THE SUPERBOWL until after the fact. It was just the championship clash between the two football conferences. I wasn’t sure why we were watching; I grew up a Steelers fan and didn’t really care about sports much then – or now.   Perhaps it remains in my memory because it was something my father and I actually did together… Whatever the reason, we watched.

And now we’re at Superbowl LV – I have no idea why they have to use the Roman numerals. I suppose it’s more dramatic, evocative of gladiators entering the ring. It’s quite dramatic for me: fifty-five years is a hunk of time; when I quantify it as more than half a century, it becomes rather jarring. In fact if I stare at those Roman numerals for too long, it causes back pain…

Thinking back fifty-five years conjures up all kinds of feelings about aging and the power of the unknown. As a kid, I couldn’t wait for the years to pass. I wanted the days to fly by like it was regularly shown in movies, the pages of the calendar flipping by, blown by the wind and by time itself. But now, I sometimes wish the pages wouldn’t flip so fast…

The two quarterbacks in Sunday’s game have very different calendar sequences in their heads. My guess is the Patrick Mahomes, who is 25 (younger than my youngest children, by the way), is all about the wide-open vista of a big, fabulous life. He can’t wait to seize the day. Let those pages fly!

Tom Brady’s calendar is a little more complex. Look, he’s 43 (older than my oldest child – by just a few years…), and already signed up to play for his team next year. Brady is, to quote Bill Murray’s encouragement to John Candy in Stripes, “a lean, mean, fighting machine.”

Brady seems to have made peace with his calendar, which, for a professional athlete, is never easy. I think he sees his calendar blowing by and accepts it for what it is with a very Zen attitude. He has chosen not to make time an enemy. He doesn’t deny it. He goes with the flow, working to build his body, his mind, and his game. As long as he’s healthy and able, why not keep going? Why not embrace the reward of a passionate, dedicated life? And seven years from now, when he receives his invitation to join AARP, I don’t think he’ll have an identity crisis.

On Superbowl Sunday, I’m rooting for the old guy. Not out of any sense of loyalty or duty, but because he inspires me. I’m old enough to be his father, and wise enough to respect that greatness is not just an intellectual standard, but one of physical and spiritual prowess as well. I’m rooting for the old guy and the way he parses time and possibility.

On the eve of Superbowl LV, I’m looking at my calendar. I wouldn’t mind it if those calendar pages slowed down a bit.  But that’s not going to happen. Instead I want to honor and embrace Tom’s Zen calendar assessment. As long as one can keep going, then why not… keep going? Keep harvesting the benefits of love and laughter, of knowledge and spirit. It’s watching the days pass without panic or depression, accepting the limits, but not being imprisoned by them.

I don’t look down the path and see darkness, though I know it will get dark… I just see so many opportunities to make meaning out of my life: not Nobel Prize-sized meaning, just reaching in with gratitude and pulling out a plum… or a mitzvah… or a good book… or a Shabbat… or a moving melody.

This Sunday, I hope Tom wins. I don’t care about his team (or Gronk) or his politics. I believe in his determination to walk the walk of accomplishment and strength, not in spite of his age, but rather reaching in and fully acknowledging it. I’m voting for the old guy.