Labor Relations in Low Earth Orbit: The Skylab Strike

Three weeks ago,  the world celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of the end of the manned portion of the Skylab mission. Well, not really. Enthusiasts of manned space exploration certainly did; others had to be reminded. Students of the history of science can edify us about the scientific value of the three Skylab missions (meant to replace Apollo 18, 19, and 20). My interest here is to note the significance of Skylab for labor relations in space: the crew of the third Skylab mission, which lasted eighty-four days–Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson–went on strike for a day during their stay before relenting and going back to work.

Their story remains a fascinating one, one illuminative of the dynamics between a rigid, controlling, science-regulating administration and a group of workers ostensibly selected for their discipline and the psychological wherewithal to resist the stresses of space. (By noting this incident, I do not mean to diminish the crew’s activities, and to reduce their twelve-week stint in space to this story.)

From the moment the crew went into orbit, their lives were a blur of experiment and regulation, tightly controlled by NASA at Houston. For every single second of their waking days the crew was prodded, poked, telemetered, scanned, and required to work through long, tedious check-lists of activities; every bodily function had to be recorded and regulated; this was, after all, a mission whose primary objectives included the study of the effects of long-term habitation in space. The interior of the Skylab space station might have been 350 cubic meters but there was nowhere to hide from Ground Control. This was a scientific experiment, on taxpayer expense, and NASA intended to get its money’s worth.

The trend of excessive, panopticon-like control of the crew had been set from the very beginning, when Bill Pogue had vomited shortly after arriving at the station, and decided, in collusion with the other members of the crew, to not  report the incident back to Houston. But the crew were being monitored and eavesdropped on, and soon they were being castigated like a triplet of hand-in-cookie-jar-schoolboys and being warned that all such incidents had to be recorded and reported. That early ‘eavesdropping’ incident was by far the most trust-destroying interaction between the crew and Ground Control.

Faced with remote discipline at its extreme, the crew asserted resistance. The crew acquired notoriety for ‘complaining’; they certainly had the most combative, unvarnished conversations ever with Houston, a far remove from the usual, sanitized excerpts that read, ‘Houston, all systems go, we are ready to go spacewalk and provide wonderful visuals’. Finally, matters came to a head, as Pogue, Carr and Gibson ‘took a day off’. I do not remember what Pogue and Carr did on their self-enforced furlough but Ed Gibson, the Caltech solar physicist, retired to the solar observation station and spent the entire workday recording images on his own sweet time, not bothering to make any detailed entries in his lab handbooks. ‘Negotiations’ followed; work schedules were altered; expectations adjusted, and work went on.

The Skylab story prompted much discussion about the regulation of work in space including suggestions the ‘revolt’ really wasn’t one. But these do not discount the contentious, irritable, edgy relationship between Houston and Skylab-IV, and they certainly do not refute the notion that even highly motivated, highly trained, military types and scientists, fully convinced of the value of their work, when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment, are likely to find conditions oppressive and push back.

Remembering What One Reads

In DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow–on which I will soon pen a few thoughts here–in Chapter 12, ‘Shame,’ Ursula wonders, overcome by tedium at studying “English, Latin, French, Mathematics and History:”

Why should one remember the things one read?

Why indeed? Ursula’s question, of course, is directed at the unquestionable tedium and seeming futility of an education that only in “odd streaks” provides her a “poignant sense of acquisition and enrichment and enlarging,” but I want to try and think about it in terms of reading in general: Is it such a bad thing if one cannot remember all that one reads?

Here is an experience, familiar, I would think, to many readers. The book ends, the last page is turned, we put it on our shelves, acknowledge the pleasure it has given us, and move on. Little of what we read stays with us; a few days later, we are only able to vaguely describe the details of the book–if a novel, perhaps the particulars of the central narrative; if an analytical work, perhaps those of the argument. We feel mortified: Are these the ‘senior moments’ we were warned about? Is decrepitude, finally, here? Are we lacking in ‘reading comprehension’? The recapitulation that should be so closely associated with the pleasure that we felt while we were reading appears to have gone missing; why aren’t the book’s contours available for articulate recall?

This anxiety finds its grounding, perhaps, in a couple of dimensions. An educational culture of standardized tests might have convinced us ‘comprehension’ is the same as ‘recall’, and we might, too, have forgotten the most straightforward pleasures of reading.  In the former, we are unable to trust ourselves that being unable to remember particulars does not straightforwardly translate to ‘complete failure to comprehend central narrative/argument and internalize, store, and possibly reaccess on provision of appropriate stimulus at later points in time.’ This is all pretty gruesomely instrumental, to be honest; a ‘successful reading experience’ becomes one that we are able to ‘deploy’, ‘use’, ‘bring to bear’ on some act of practical cognition. The ‘value’ of reading then becomes measured by its ‘utility.’

So it is to the latter dimension that we should rather turn. The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are–in the way that we were instructed by the  enthusiastic reading-boosters of our childhood, our parents and teachers–transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once. (I acknowledge that ‘scholarship’ is a rather portentous term for some, if not many, of our reading encounters!) While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

The Oscars as Inducers of Cosmic Disillusionment

Many, many years ago, as a mad-about-the-movies young–very young!–lad, I was in the habit of eagerly awaiting the announcement of the year’s Oscars, my cinematic antennae quivering with anticipation as the suspense mounted. My spatio-temporal geographic location being what it was, this enthusiasm manifested itself most visibly in a speedy dash to our front balcony where I would scour about for the morning newspaper, expertly tossed up some twenty-five feet by the delivery man. (If my calculations are correct, this undignified scramble took place on Wednesday mornings, in the days when the Oscar ceremonies were staged on Monday nights on the US West Coast; I was some ten hours away.) A bizarre notion underwrote this enthusiasm: that the Oscars picked out, somehow, magically, from on high, ‘The Best Movie in the World’ or ‘The Best Actor in the World’ or whatever. The Oscars seemed like a definitive anointment of movie royalty; a final, beyond-reach placement and establishment of the Real beyond the Apparent.

Then, still, I think, a pre-teen, I read a pulp novel–the name escapes me now–that proved an unlikely vehicle for a radical species of disillusionment. In it, an elaborate intrigue is mounted to sneak into the offices of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, break into the safe containing the envelopes with the names of the Oscar winners and to replace them with  envelopes containing our miscreants’ favored candidates. (I have forgotten why this elaborate, Watergate-style conspiracy was required; I dimly remember a studio’s box-office fate resting on the success of the bait-n-switch.)

When I reached this point in my reading, I remember being stunned: Wait, that’s ALL the Oscars were? Just the result of voting by some Academy? Made up of humans voting their preferences? Why was that so special? Couldn’t they just vote for their favorite movies? I knew somehow, dimly, that human beings often differed in their utility allocations; schoolyard rumbles had at least taught me that much. Somehow, I had imagined that the Oscars resulted from a non-earthly assessment of cinematic quality, that their awards were free of the taint of human subjectivity and bias. A second wave of paradigm-shattering debunk soon washed over me: Even if I had always imagined the US as the Center-of-the-World, this Academy seemed to be located in a very particular place, California, and–of course!–the movies were all American or seemed to be, all in English, with a special award for ‘Foreign Language Film’. (I knew, thankfully, that movies were made elsewhere in the world. How could I not, living in India?)

Clearly, I was then in the grip of a deep confusion, an unawareness as it were, that the ‘trail of the human serpent is over everything.’ To be debunked of such unawareness at a young age can only be a good thing; but it isn’t so easy to get rid of. A fully-lived life is often required, a little humility, and the realization that when it comes to naming, lower case letters do much better work than upper-case.

Reflections on Translations – II: Music and the Superfluousness of Comprehension

Can one listen to a song, not understand its lyrics, and still appreciate it? The answer to this silly question is a straightforward ‘Yes’, and I don’t think I would be alone in saying so.

As the endearing popularity of The Best–or Most–Misunderstood Lyrics meme, and the persistent faux complaints about Incomprehensible Lyrics show, we are used to hearing and appreciating songs whose words we only dimly understand. In the case of the Misunderstood Lyric, we impose our creative–often more-satisfying and more-entertaining–interpretation on the words and carry merrily along; in the case of the Incomprehensible Lyric, we sometimes mouth substitutes, sometimes we move our lips in despair, struggling to find traction somewhere, anywhere, in that slippery mass of mumbles, moans, grunts, all in a supposedly familiar language. But we don’t stop listening; no one ever hits the ‘off’ button in frustration at incomprehension.

Sometimes, as was evident to me some twenty years ago, when I saw University of Maryland students ‘dancing’ to Ice Cube‘s  “Wrong Nigger To Fuck With”, we can vaguely, dimly, understand the lyrics, and perhaps push their fully comprehended significance away from us so we can get on with the business at hand viz. dancing. In this case, I have in mind the last verse of WNTFW, which reads:

Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic
I gotta have it, to peel his cap backwards
I hope he wear a vest too, and his best blew
goin up against the Zulu
Break his spine like a jellyfish
Kick his ass til I’m smellin shit
Off wit the head, off wit the head I say
And watch the devil start kickin
Run around like a chicken, grand dragon finger lickin
Yo, turn him over wit a spatula
Now we got, Kentucky Fried Cracker
Mess with the Cube, you get punked quick
Pig, cause I’m the wrong nigga to fuck with!

Dunno if these are lyrics to dance by, exactly.

But most importantly, we listen to songs in other languages, whose words are all Greek–or Spanish, or French–to us. We hear the words, we respond to their sounds, their physicality; the lack of a connection with their meanings does not appear to faze the listener. Here, music ceases to be the lyrical word, and becomes purely expressive again. Sometimes this lack of connection with meaning can be a relief; we can get on with the business of simply reacting to the sounds. (I enjoyed Plastic Bertrand‘s Ca Plane Pour Moi for years before bothering to look up anything about it.) My favorite instance is Fernanda Abreu‘s Katia Flavia, which I’ve been listening to for some eight years now, all the while wrapped in utter incomprehension about the song’s lyrics, their meaning or supposed significance. I like the sound of Portugese, especially when deployed by such a strong, funky voice; I respond, immediately, to the cadence, the urgency and insistence of Abreu’s peformance. And I find no desire whatsoever to translate, to push back on the opacity of the lyric.

It’s not because I think I will be disillusioned; it’s just because, at this stage in my enjoyment of the song, comprehension seems besides the point.

Barbells for America? Crossfit, the Military and War

On any given day, if you were to click over to the Crossfit ‘mainsite’,  the chances are you will find a reference to the military  in the daily entry. Today, on February 25th, the blog prescribes a ‘Hero workout’ named ‘Zimmermann‘ named after U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant James R. Zimmerman, who died in action in Afghanistan. (The  ‘Hero’ workouts are almost invariably named after men; recently, one of them, ‘White’, was named after a woman, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ashley White, who, like Zimmermann, died in action in Afghanistan.) The ‘mainsite’ often features photographs of members of the military working out at US bases all over the world, service members frequently write in the comments space, and occasionally articles with a military or national security orientation are linked to on the blog; Crossfit affiliate gyms all over the country offer discounts to the military; the annual fund-raising event Fight Gone Bad raises money for wounded servicemen; and many affiliates celebrate Memorial Day by performing the ‘Murph’ Hero workout (named after Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, killed in action in Afghanistan).

There is, it appears, something of the military in Crossfit’s genes. (This is partially explained by the fact that service members were among the first to adopt Crossfit training routines and that much military physical training already incorporated aspects of the Crossfit training methodology.)

So, is Crossfit ‘militaristic’, ‘pro-war’, ‘jingoistic’, ‘right-wing’, ‘cheerleaders for US imperialism and expansionism’, or whatever else? The answer, like that to any interesting question, is complicated. The flavor of the ‘mainsite’–moreso in the past–often seemed to indicate a facile ‘yes’ answer to those questions. (When I was first directed to the ‘mainsite’ by a Crossfitting friend, he warned me to ‘stay away from their frightening right-wing politics’; when I got to the site, I found an article by Charles Krauthammer just below the daily workout entry.)

But as Crossfit’s popularity has grown, and as the demographic associated with Crossfit has diversified from a core population made up of  servicemen, law-enforcers and firemen–the three groups that until recently, were the only ones to receive membership discounts; my affiliate now offers discounts to teachers–the ‘orientation’, such as it is, of Crossfit, has become more ambiguous. Crossfit doesn’t just mean Air Force crewmen working out in hangars; it also means Berkeley grads sprinting on beaches in North California; it doesn’t only conjure up images of crewcut privates working out in remote mountain outposts, but also those of post-natal soccer moms discussing paleo recipes (and perhaps even skinny-jean clad hipsters riding gearless bikes to the daily WOD).

The Crossfit world is made up of thousands of affiliates each with its own particular flavor, style, demographic, geographic location, and culture. And many of those who Crossfit now don’t like wars in general, they don’t like the wars the US wages, they think the best way to ‘support our boys over there’ is to bring them right back home so that they don’t get killed in action (and stop killing others), to stop spending money on drones or stealth bombers, and to spend it on public schools, infrastructure, and basic scientific research instead. Their membership, enthusiastic participation, and responses to Crossfit’s connections with the military complicate any easy answers to those questions.

Many Crossfitters disdain the political implications of a workout regime: ‘I workout, move the weight, sweat the work, and I’m done. I stay away from the politics.’ This apolitical response works most of the time. But at times like Fight Gone Bad, or at the Memorial Day ‘commemorations’, as one performs ‘Murph’, it is hard not to have to face up to the question of what affiliation with, or participation in, a perhaps-militaristic culture might entail for one’s own political commitments. (This complication is especially enhanced by that all-too-common exhortation, ‘Even if you don’t support US foreign policy, you should be behind the brave servicemen and women, out there, doing their jobs’).

I cannot–and will not–attempt an answer for anyone else that Crossfits. (I do hope that by writing this post, I can raise questions for any Crossfitter to consider. ) All I can do is offer a few thoughts about my personally complicated implication in all of this.

I’m a naturalized US citizen, I have marched in anti-war marches, I find the culture of masculine violence veneration obnoxious. But, I also write books on military aviation history; more particularly, air wars in the Indian subcontinent; members of my family–my father and my brother–have served in the military (the Indian Air Force); my father fought in two wars–the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan–and picked up a gallantry medal. Some of my most enjoyable childhood memories are those of watching jets–afterburners on–take off; some of my most pleasurable adult experiences have been of interviewing war veterans for my books.

Pro-military? Anti-military? For the ‘boys’? Or against them? Comfortable with Crossfit’s connections with the military, or not?

The answer, I think, is a mishmash of many competing impulses. The comfort-seeking apolitical part of me disdains a conceptual connection between a workout regime and a political orientation; another part, the one that thinks ‘the personal is political’, is made uncomfortable by my association with a ‘culture’ or ‘institution’ that is so passionately pro-military and perhaps militaristic. These responses are made ambiguous by my personal identification with members of the military; I find myself striking up conversations about service life with servicemen quite easily; I think of myself as a ‘military brat’ and find empathy with the children of service members. And somehow, I still cannot bring myself to think that when I do a ‘Hero’ workout I am honoring the memory of the fallen. To do that, it seems to me that I should work to ensure no more children are ever orphaned by war, that no more families ever have to confront the sight of a funeral casket. My father, someone that actually fought in a war, as opposed to those who merely cheer for it from the sidelines, described it as ’90 percent boredom, 10 percent confusion’; he refused to glamorize war and disdained the telling of tall war tales; he urged me to think about careers other than that of a fighter pilot; and by making sure I read more than just war comics, made me think about the politics that makes war possible.

The sum total of these competing impulses is ultimately determined, as it is for most people, by their own personal connections with Crossfit culture. I don’t ‘do Crossfit’; rather I work out with a group of folks that I can best describe as my friends, at a highly particular, specific location: Crossfit South Brooklyn. This, for me, isn’t Crossfit so much as it is ‘The House That David Built.’ It might utilize Crossfit training methodology but its deployment is uniquely personal and idiosyncratic. If there is an ideology on display here, it is that of working hard, and accepting as much diversity–in fitness yes, but in every other dimension as well–as possible. Fitting in here is easy just because the space accommodates so many in all their variety.

When I interviewed veterans for my books, to a man, they said their most important motivation in any display of courage was invariably personal; they fought not so much for flag or country but for the men, their friends, who worked with and alongside them; quite simply, they didn’t want to let them down. In my participation in Crossfit ‘culture’ a decidedly less martial variant holds true; I work out with my friends in a space that is accepting of my political stance, and in the end that is all that seems to matter. Last year, I dedicated my ‘Murph’ to my father and my brother. And even though I do not think performing a ‘Hero’ workout will honor the memory of the fallen as much as working to end wars will, if performing it helps someone think about war and its cost, then I’m all for it. In the end, it’s perhaps best to find– within this particular space–my personal orientation to the questions it raises and to answer them in my own way. What that way is, is something I’m still figuring out as I move on. (That is, when I’m not performing a workout or recovering from one; at those times, my mind is fixated, almost exclusively, on the demands my body is making on me!)

I remain, as always, deeply curious about what other Crossfitters think about the questions raised in this post, and would love to engage with their answers to it.

Dennis Bergkamp’s Goal and Fan Encounters in the Rainforest

The Wikipedia entry for Dennis Bergkamp–who graced the rosters of Ajax, Internazionale, Arsenal and the Dutch national team in a career lasting twenty years–includes the following notes:

Bergkamp scored three times in the 1998 FIFA World Cup, including a memorable winning goal in the final minute of the quarter-final against Argentina. Bergkamp took a leaping first touch to instantly control a long 60-yard aerial pass from Frank De Boer, brought the ball down through Argentine defender Roberto Ayala’s legs, and finally finished by firing a volley with the outside of his right foot past the keeper at a tight angle from the right.

When I am asked, “Where were you when Bergkamp scored against Argentina?,”  I reply: “At home.” In the summer of 1998, in my East Village apartment. (Indulgent in having ordered cable so I could watch the World Cup; till then, I had used my television for movies and disdained cable offerings; but the World Cup rolled around and my resolve weakened.) When Bergkamp scored, seemingly out of the blue, in a game that seemed headed for extra-time and perhaps penalties, I was as stunned as anyone else, transfixed by the soccer artistry on display. I knew I had paid witness to a masterpiece.

It remains one of those classic soccer moments that separates fans from non-fans. The long-time soccer-watcher instantly knows why the goal is a classic; the neophyte is puzzled: “Is that all there is?” Everything Bergkamp did was difficult. Using a “leaping first touch to instantly control a long 60-yard aerial pass” (launched cross-field)  is hard enough, but to then move on with the ball past a defender–the ball tapped through the legs!– and to finish with a deft volley “with the outside of his right foot past the keeper at a tight angle”, well-placed enough to score, boggles the mind. And all this, in the 90th minute of a World Cup quarter-final. Against Argentina.

Once a goal becomes “One of the best”, it is fodder for conversation in encounters with fellow soccer fans. Anywhere in the world.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I found myself in the El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico. We drove there in the afternoon from San Juan, and after settling in and unloading luggage, headed out for an evening’s worth of beer drinking and sunset evaluation at Indian Rock. Later, at night, after dinner, we arrived back at our rather humble accommodations to find ourselves sharing them with a Dutch couple, busy polishing off a bottle of wine and a game of cards, as the rain came down in buckets outside. The young Dutchman and I struck up conversation, and then, perhaps inevitably, our talk drifted, first to soccer, and then, somehow, to Bergkamp (as an instance of Dutch artistry not visible in the grim 2010 World Cup final against Spain).

And then, perhaps even more inevitably, to “the goal.” At which point, overcome by beer-induced boldness, I decided to do my best impersonation of Jack Van Gelder’s memorable, Andres-Cantor-surpassing, shrieking call of Bergkamp’s goal, yelling out, “Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! ” My young friend giggled, his long-suffering girlfriend, apparently not a soccer fan, rolled her eyes–as did my wife–and I giggled right back. So we sat there, as the rain came down on the roof, against the windows, the sounds of the rainforest night all around us. And I thought, this is also what great goals are good for: years later, strangers can meet in the middle of a rainforest at night, and indulge in juvenile television commentator impersonations that try the patience of their loved ones.

Election Season Debates: A Modest Proposal

My only contribution, thus far, to the ‘conversation’ about this year’s election season has been a rather facetious celebration of the continued viability of Newt ‘The Professor’ Gingrich’s candidacy. My reason for disdaining seriousness in that comment was not so much contempt as much as it was weariness. The curve of the quality of election season conversation and ‘debate’  has shown a remarkable downward incline over the years; much as I celebrated the potential for levity in the continuation of the Republican primary battle in that post of mine, I did so knowing that there was very little chance that I would actually be able to tune in for more than a few minutes of the debates (so far, I have watched some 45 seconds of one debate last year).

This weariness finds its roots in an acknowledgement of the vapidity of the interactions between the candidates, of course, but its real provenance, lies, I think, in the knowledge that the candidates’ conversation appears to be mere epiphenomena, mere misleading froth above the surface of the domain of the real powerbrokers, the real puppeteers: the landed, moneyed, corporate entities that control political discourse and action in this nation of ours. This knowledge produces a certain sense of futility: Of what use public declamation and proclamation, when the real action is happening off-stage in corporate boardrooms and lobbyist offices? That’s where future political strategies and maps are being currently charted, where tactical and strategic syllabi are being drawn up, to be distributed to the cartel of political figureheads that will execute them and bring them to fruition. The vassals of our obedient media will supplement this activity with a crescendo of faithful echoes, amplifications, and hosannahs of approval.

So I have a modest proposal to make, one grounded in the hope that it will be seen for what it is: A call for honesty. Let us dispense with these faux-debates, these performances by political grandstanders, forced to master talking points and spin strategies, and to enter domains of discourse that seem so clearly beyond their limited intellects.  In instead, with the real wheelers-and-dealers: Let us have real debates and question-and-answer sessions with CEOs and lobbyists. They could articulate to us their vision for America; they could, armed with Powerpoint and video, point us to the map of their future courses, perhaps even distribute brochures and prospectuses of planned activities for, say, the next five years, the next ten years and so on. Management consultancy aides could supplement these with a series of presentations involving concentric circles, looping back arrowheads and intersecting rectilinear figures.

A conversation like this would bring some refreshing honesty to the American political landscape. It would dispense with this bizarre charade of middle-aged, besuited white men–in this age of supposedly rapid, bewildering change, it is good to know that some things are stable and enduring–exposed to the harsh glare of studio klieg lights, forced to mumble inanities for television audiences.

A great nation can do better than this.  Becoming more honest about its elections would be a good start.