Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

From ‘Filling the Sky’ to ‘Sharing the Earth’

In On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square (Random House, New York, 2006), Marshall Berman, in the chapter ‘The Street Splits and Twists’, which, among other things, describes the complicated relationship between women and Times Square, notes in his commentary on Ethel Merman:

Gypsy is one of the most grueling of American plays. It’s amazing how many of the greatest American plays ran on Broadway in a single decade–Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey into Night–heartrending ordeals everyone. Gypsy is the one great ordeal with a happy ending. Its climax, where Gypsy offers to take care of Rose and her mother lets her, is a rare utopian moment when we can actually see tragedy metamorphose into comedy. Our history doesn’t offer many moments like this. Imagine, if we could see King Lear settle into a retirement cottage in Cordelia‘s kingdom; or see Captain Ahab at the very last minute turn the ship around and return to Nantucket, where he could get drunk, try on new clothes, and tell tall tales; or see the Red Army refuse to fire on the people and join in the jubilation of the Prague Spring. Alas, we can’t see any of these things. But Laurents and Sondheim and Merman have brought us a stirring vision of how somebody who used to fill the sky can learn to share the earth. [pp. 159-160; links added]

‘Fill the sky’ and ‘share the earth’; few learn to do that gracefully. The most famous instances of failures to do so are drawn from unsurprising domains like sports. The sports star attains a peak state, one of acute physical and mental co-ordination, performs at the highest levels possible, gains the greatest accolades and laurels, and then, goals attained, suddenly finds himself bereft of inspiration or motivation. Retirement appears as a grim period of enforced lassitude and eventual decrepitude, a time in which the erstwhile star of the heavens, now rudely deposited on humble lower ground, can gaze back wistfully at more exhilarating times. And so thus, the painful ‘comebacks’, which cause former fans and well-wishers so much angst, but which seem to assuage, momentarily at least, our ageing star, before the unfamiliar mediocrity of this new phase of life becomes unbearable and forces a reluctant retreat.

And there are the moon astronauts. Spare a thought for Buzz Aldrin. He graduated third in his class at West Point in 1951, flew in the Korean war, shot down two opponents in aircombat,  earned a Doctor of Science degree in astronautics from MIT for a thesis titled “Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous”, joined the astronaut corps, flew aboard the Gemini 12 mission, and then, finally on Apollo 11, became the second man to walk on the moon. When he returned to earth, having realized, perhaps, multiple summum bonums in the physical and mental domains, a crash landing was almost inevitable: it came in the shape of struggles with depression, alcoholism, and marital infidelity.

‘Filling the sky’ is hard indeed; ‘sharing the earth’ might be even harder once it’s done.

RIP Neil Armstrong

Upon graduating from high school–confused and directionless–I considered taking on an undergraduate education in the US. I pursued the application process for as long as I could, before the financial impossibility of it all made me cease and desist. Among the majors I thought of making my own was aeronautical and aerospace engineering, and the school where I most wanted to study that subject was, wait for it: the University of Cincinnati.

Why UC? The answer was simple: long before I had figured out the meaning of the pernicious term ‘star faculty,’ I had become aware there was a professor at UC who did have a touch of the astronomical to him: Neil Armstrong.  (I did not realize then, thanks to a less-than-thorough perusal of the school’s informational brochure, that Armstrong had only taught in the school till 1979 before resigning to take up other work.) Studying aerospace engineering–a natural choice of subject, surely, for the space-exploration-obsessed son of a pilot–with the first man to walk on the moon? Dreams were made of this.

It didn’t happen, of course, and I moved on to considerably less fantastic ventures. But that misguided and poorly informed attempt of mine to bring myself closer to my object of teenaged admiration should give you some indication of the kind of hold astronauts used to exert over schoolkids. The era of the space shuttle, of almost-routine spaceflight–disrupted by the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters–has diminished some of the halo that surrounded astronauts, but back then, only a dozen years or so after the Apollo program came to an end, they were still gods that walked the earth. And even then, Armstrong seemed a cut apart and above. And it wasn’t just that in a culture obsessed with priority, he had been the First on the Moon. Rather, it became clear to me as I read my way through the history of manned space-flight, that Armstrong was a bit of an exception even in his cohort.

More than anything else, Armstrong was a nerd. In the astronaut corps, he was more test pilot than regular fighter pilot jock, more engineer than explorer. He talked a little less, swaggered not a bit, and took his missions into space to be scientific work first and foremost. Crucially, he was a civilian, which helped ensure that NASA, unwilling to take sides in the inter-services rivalry between Air Force and Navy pilots, would pick him to be the commander of the first mission to land on the moon. Armstrong’s now-legendary reticence meant he did not write an autobiography so most of what I learned about him, I learned from his Apollo 11 crewmates. (Michael CollinsCarrying the Fire, one of the best books written on flying by a pilot, was particularly good in this regard.) This taciturnity ensured the first man on the moon maintained a studious, discreet and dignified persona befitting his lofty title.

As the outpouring of respect and affection on the announcement of his death showed, his retreat from an excessively public life ensured he would retain his Apollo 11 status in the public eye. Not for him the succumbing to the temptations of politics; I suspect he sensed cynicism and corruption lay along that path. His fellow Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, had a hard landing back on earth: alcoholism and marital troubles followed. Armstrong perhaps surmised the dangers of trying to replicate on earth the glories that belonged only in space, and like the good engineer he was, made a few calculations before settling on a course of action that would best preserve his sanity, equanimity, and reputation on his return to this planet.

It worked.  Neil always knew when to light the fire, and when to glide to a soft landing. RIP.

RIP Sally Ride

Like many other schoolboys in the 1980s, transfixed by the awesome sight of the space shuttle lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center, by the legend of the moon landings, and by the culturally enforced vision of the astronaut as our era’s most intrepid pioneer, I had a thing for those that went into space. Needless to say, I wanted to be like the men, those dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing types, piloting jets and shuttles. But that didn’t mean that women astronauts couldn’t make me admire them, especially if their credentials for spaceflight included degrees in physics like Sally Ride‘s did. I was a physics nerd too–one inordinately proud of explaining to anyone that cared to listen what pions had to do with the relationship between a proton and a neutron–and found the idea of civilian scientists and not just military pilots heading into space incredibly inspiring. If I ever dreamed being an astronaut, it was as a Mission Specialist and not as a Pilot  Commander that I imagined myself; I didn’t think I would join the military. And I also dreamed about a career as an astrophysicist, so a physicist-astronaut seemed wonderfully cool.

When Ride’s selection for STS-7 was announced, I took notice.  It didn’t matter she was a woman. Physics just made everyone that studied it cool, and besides, she was an astronaut. What was not to like? I studied shuttle flights closely in those days, diligently making trips to the American Library in New Delhi to watch videotapes of reports on each mission; STS-7’s details–its satellite deployments, for instance–received a great deal of wide-eyed attention from me. (It helped that the mission was led by the dashing Bob Crippen.)  Later, I saw Ride on television handing interviewers with aplomb and grace. I do not remember if any of them asked those sexist questions that were so often directed at her but it is entirely possible that I might have heard and seen a few and not realized just how offensive that line of questioning was. I do remember Carl Sagan being paired up with her for a television interview, and on being asked if he was envious of astronauts like Ride, saying he didn’t consider ‘puttering around in low earth orbit to be space travel.’ In the neighboring television window, Ride just smiled, refusing to fall for the bait. She seemed graceful, smart, and tough, a winning combination at all times.

One thing I didn’t know about Sally Ride then was that she was a lesbian. I wonder what I would have thought then as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, one relatively unsophisticated in his understanding of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression. My guess is that while I might have had some puerile curiosity about her sexual orientation and would have jumped at the opportunity to crack a crude joke or two in juvenile company, I think that in the end, the combination of astrophysics and manned space flight would have trumped it all. It still does.

RIP Sally.

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.

Personal Identity And Wanting To Be Jim Lovell

Personal identity is a philosophical topic made for thought experiments. The problem of persistence of identity is quite simply posed; as the Stanford Encylopedia for Philosophy entry for personal identity puts it:

What determines which past or future being is you? Suppose you point to a child in an old class photograph and say, “That’s me.” What makes you that one, rather than one of the others? What is it about the way she relates then to you as you are now that makes her you? For that matter, what makes it the case that anyone at all who existed back then is you?

The related problem of self-identity–what makes me the person I am, posed classically as the question ‘Who Am I?’–reveals itself as just as fascinating:

[O]ne’s “personal identity”…makes one the person one is. [It] consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties).

These problems of persistence of identity and self-identity pose questions like, “If X had not happened to me would I still be who I am?” (Which set of experiences are definitive of my identity), or “If I did not possess this property/behavioral characteristic/personality feature would I still be who I am?” (roughly, Which of my properties are “essential” to my identity?) Almost anyone, including schoolboys, can be perplexed by the thought experiments that lead to these questions.

I should know, because I was a schoolboy once, and these questions managed to stump me.

My childhood attempt at raising a hypothetical situation that prompted these questions came about when I was a space-travel nerd, one that avidly read up on histories of manned space exploration, including biographies and autobiographies of astronauts. Those astronauts that had had long careers struck me as having lived particularly rich lives: they had been pilots (even better, at times they had been military pilots who had flown in combat), they had flown in a variety of spacecraft, gone to the moon, and so on. Among them, James Lovell, the commander of the abortive Apollo 13 mission, stood out just a bit. The first man to fly in space four times–Gemini7 and Gemini 12, and then later, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13–Lovell had gone to the moon twice without landing on it. He seemed to have lived the kind of life a schoolboy could only dream about. So that’s precisely what I did, letting myself dream about living the life Jim Lovell had lived, all the while idly tossing around the thought–I wish I could have been Jim Lovell.

The oddness of this remark soon became clear to me. I had said I wanted to be Jim Lovell because, presumably, I found the descriptions of the experiences he had had exciting, and wanted to have the same ones. But how could I, Samir Chopra, have Jim Lovell’s experiences without being Jim Lovell himself? It seemed me to me that my experiences made me into who I am; Lovell’s experiences made him into who he was. But if it wasn’t me having those Lovell-experiences, what would be the point? Jim Lovell had already had his experiences. If I had them, I wouldn’t be Samir Chopra any more. Rather I would be someone else having those experiences. What would be the point of that? It had soon become clear to me that the person who wanted to have those Jim Lovell-experiences could not experience them in any other way than wistfully; I could perhaps watch a movie or read a book about them but I couldn’t have Jim Lovell-experiences without being someone else and changing the point of wanting those experiences for myself. To actually have them would be to be someone else, and that wouldn’t do anything to satisfy the person who had expressed the wish in the first place. At best, it seemed to me, as I thought about it further, I could have said, “I wish I had lived a life that included the kinds of experiences Jim Lovell had.”

I’m not sure how old I was, and I don’t know how clearly I have managed to recapitulate my line of thought at the time. But I’ve remembered its rough details well enough to recount this little anecdote to many classes I’ve taught over the years. I think my students find it a little wacky that I went so far with that line of speculation, but they still find it an engaging point of entry for talking about personal identity.