Musin’ on Smoky Mountains

We’re spending a few days with good friends in a region I haven’t hung out in before – the Smoky Mountain ranges of North Carolina, nestled in the town of Cashiers (pronounced “Cashers”).  Chalet Draisin is a beautiful setting this time of year.

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“Don’t Take Courses, Take Professors”

It comes at the 49 minute mark of the video, where professional author and speaker Gregg Levoy remarks: “My father’s advice when I headed off to college was don’t take courses, take professors.  Isn’t that interesting?  Take professors.”

I literally tripped over Levoy’s book, Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion, when Miriam was displacing a pile from the the den’s bed to make room for Elliot’s overnight stay.  His trip to Fair Lawn was a quick turnaround to attend his high school’s 20th reunion, and no doubt he had his share of memories of teachers based on life’s lessons imparted more so that the formal topic of the class they taught.  All the more so in the United States Military Academy …

Levoy is a gifted writer, and Vital Signs is one of those books that prompts a torrent of thoughts and self-reflections.  I rarely re-read books, but on the serendipitous occasion of bumping into an old friend (which is what keepsake books are, after all) bedrock principles are sometimes conjured up.  Just within the first chapter of Vital Signs there were two:

  1. Diversifying one’s spiritual portfolio – no matter how secularistic or humanistic you are, would you be willing to bet against the existence of God?  Taking a lesson from the world of finance, as my model of spirituality evolves and expands, I’ve always maintained some investment in traditional notions of God.  Levoy plumbs the depths of what it means to hedge bets for or against the existence of  an afterlife.  If there are pearly gates of heaven, would it have been worth unloading all assets of asceticism in exchange for tangible pleasures?  My mantra: maintain a diversified spiritual portfolio.
  2. Repairing one’s spiritual infrastructure – the metaphor of bridges decaying and railings rusting can be powerful.  Houses of the Holy have their purpose, and religious institutions are an essential part of the communal fabric.  But on an individual basis we need to periodically repair our spiritual infrastructure.  Being invested in organized religion and houses of worship are all well and good, but healing the spirit is not rooted in time or place.  My mantra: take one month mini-sabbaticals to re-pave one’s spirit every six months.

 

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More Shore Scenes

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Einstein and the Rabbi

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Soul searching is part of the fabric of Jewish life, never more intense than at this time of year when Jews are immersed in Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur observances.  Observance can take many forms, one of which can be immersion in books that speak to the soul.  I found one last week on the table of new arrivals at Barnes & Noble, with a beguiling title and inviting subtitle.  Its author, Naomi Levy, is the founder and leader of Nashuva, a groundbreaking spiritual outreach community based in Los Angeles.

 

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Chapter two bears the title of the book, and Levy advances the claim that this particular Rabbi, Robert S. Marcus, deserves something deeper than a footnote in Einstein’s history. The letter that Einstein wrote to Marcus is archived and well-documented, but there is no record of the original letter from Marcus about his eleven-year-old son’s death from polio that prompted Einstein’s reply.

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Einstein Typed Letter

The typed version of the letter is dated February 12, 1950, and by this time Rabbi Marcus was political director of the World Jewish Congress but only five or six years removed from his monumental service in World War II.  The Center for Jewish History notes that Captain Marcus, Jewish Chaplain with the 23rd Tactical Air Command, was awarded with the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in connection with military operations from May 24, 1944 to May 8, 1945. Captain Marcus ministered to the religious needs of his men and brought comfort to the wounded through the period of the aerial offensive, and the campaigns in Normandy, Southern France, and Germany.

Children were among the first to be slaughtered in the concentration camps but, in April 1945, along with his colleague Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Rabbi Marcus discovered 904 Jewish boys who had been courageously hidden and saved by the camp inmates.  He set up “Kibbutz Buchenwald”, committed to restoring these boys to health and to finding them a new life.  They learned how to engage in communal farming, providing them with skills they could use in the free world.  Among the children that Rabbi Marcus would make his personal mission to save was a sixteen-year-old boy named Eliezer.  The world came to know that boy as Elie Wiesel.

 

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Rocket Men – Courtesy of Rita

rocket men coverAs I was sitting in my usual spot in Booktowne, enjoying a periodic sojourn to Manasquan’s Main Street, the store’s owner Rita Maggio approached me with a proposition: “Would you like to read this advanced copy of Robert Kurson’s latest book?” That’s a bit like asking a choco-holic if he’d like a pre-tatse of Ghirardelli’s latest flavor.  I’d long savored the author’s spell-binding style in Shadow Divers, popular in these parts because the story centers on local divers who discovered a World War II German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey in Manasquan’s back yard.  But I absoliutely devoured Kurson’s follow up, “Crashing Through”, the amazing story of Mike May’s visual adventures.  Knowing quite a bit about the issues involved enabled me to appreciate the depths of Kurson’s research.  (I wrote an essay on the subject that was published in an optometric journal.)

Contrast that with Rocket Men, a subject I knew little about beyond Elton John’s iconic song.

It turns out that Elton’s construct shares much in common with Kurson’s take on the human interest factors he probes so deftly in telling the story of Apollo 8.

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine A.M.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

Among Kurson’s many gifts as a writer is his ability to relate very technical topics in narrative fashion, and Rocket Men reads like a fine novel from beginning to end.  But as I meandered through the book I found myself wondering:  Why the story of Apollo 8?  And why now?

The author notes that he discovered the command capsule of Apollo 8 on a visit with friends to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago a few years ago.  It was there and then that he realized he knew almost nothing about the mission, particularly compared to Apollo 11 and Apollo 13.  Nor was he alone.  To the public, Apollo 8’s journey around the moon garnered much less interest than the lunar landing of Apollo 11, and was less memorable than the near tragedy of Apollo 13.  Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names, even if one is not from a STEM family, the former for his “One Small Step for Man” quote and the latter for his iconic pose with the American flag on the moon.  But Apollo 11, and the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, would have never happened were it not for the Apollo 8’s successful journey.

Apollo 8 mission patch

Frank Borman is perhaps better known to my generation as the former President of Eastern Airlines than he is as the commander of Apollo 8, and Jim Lovell’s name is linked more often to the explosion on board Apollo 13 as popularized by Ron Howard’s directing of Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon in a movie about that failed lunar landing mission.  This book is therefore an attempt to set the record straight on why the significant players associated with NASA felt that Apollo 8 was the most daring and courageous of the Apollo missions.

Regarding the timing of the book, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 which launched on December 21, 1968 likely factored into the planning for a release date next April.  I suspect the author and publisher may have also gauged the public’s appetite for more human interest stories about the space race with the Soviets based on the recent commercial success of Hidden Figures and our renewed contention with the Soviet Union.

There are many elements of space flight preparation that Kurson elaborates in detail that aren’t unique to Apollo 8.  They are welcome insights into the background of astronauts and how NASA arrived at the compilation of each trio for the Apollo missions.  We learn that there was fierce competition and jealousies among the space travelers, Borman and Lovell having been previously paired in the Gemini missions, with Kurson always at his best when bringing human factors to the surface.  As an example, he manages to make his descriptions of the personal hygiene issues the crew had to deal with in space humorous while at the same time spellbinding.

The crew of Apollo 8 is the only one that flew in either the Gemini or Apollo programs whose marriages are still intact.  The extensive interviews that the author conducted with each of the astronauts informs Rocket Men at a very personal level.  It is clear that family meant a great deal to them, but at the same time family was called upon to make significant sacrifices essential to the success of the mission.  The principals are now well into their 80s, but remain sharp with the exception of Susan Borman who is plagued by Alzheimer’s disease.  The epilogue’s description of Frank Borman’s dedication to Susan will tug at your heartstrings.

At various intervals Kurson reminds of how successful Apollo 8 was, to an extent most people outside of NASA didn’t fully appreciate at the time.  The journey around the moon occurred with significant unrest back on planet earth, and the success of the mission served as a unifying force of sorts.  On December 24, Christmas eve, around 8:30PM Houston time, the spacecraft crew would make their second television broadcast.  NASA estimated that more people around the world would be watching and listening than had ever tuned in to a human voice at one time.  While the Moon moved across television screens all around the world, Anders spoke first, intoning the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth …”  Lovell contnued the passage.  Borman finished it, concluding their broadcast with these wishes: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you on the good Earth.”

As the screen went dark, grown men in Mission Control hugged each other and wept openly.  Walter Cronkite choked back tears.  You will find yourself doing the same at various times while reading Kurson’s magnificent recounting of a special era in technological history.

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Rhys is the Word

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The Phillies late-season rookie phenomenon, Rhys Hoskins (on your left), is one half of last year’s Bash Brothers.  His baseball brother, Dylan Cozens, actually out-homered Rhys by 40 to 38 in their prodigious display for the double A Reading Fightin’ Phils.  This year was a different story, with Hoskins not only out-homering Cozens, but leaving him in the dust on every offensive stat on a developmental trajectory that took him to Philadelphia for his first major league game, against the Mets on August 10th.

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Rhys’s debut was inauspicious to say the least.  He batted 7th in the lineup, and went hitless with a walk and a strikeout in three at-bats.   On August 11 he moved to the cleanup spot, on a hunch by his manager that was still not borne out by his performance, and he went hitless in four at-bats, with a walk and two strikeouts.  His third game, on August 12, continued his unimpressive streak, another zero for four in which he went struck out once and failed to reach base.  Still in the cleanup spot on August 13, Rhys picked up his first major league hit, a weak RBI single.

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It was not until the club went out of town, flying to San Diego for his 5th game on August 14th, that Rhys hit his first home run on his 16th at bat.  It came in the 4th inning off Travis Wood, with no one on base – and will be the answer to a trivia question one day.   Ripping another solo HR in the 7th inning, this time off the Padres’ Craig Stammen, Rhys was officially off to the races.

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That is what makes Rhys’s rookie record home run pace that much more impressive.  He is the fastest in major league history to his first 10 HRs, and he didn’t hit any in his first four games.  And with each HR he has maintained his pace – fastest to 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and as of last night, fastest in major league history to “chai”, unleashing a torrent of Rhys T-Shirts and garnering national attention for a team that is still mired in last place and still on pace for the worst record in the major leagues.  But at least Rhys gives hope for the future!

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You Rascal You

Last night was the beginning of the end of another wonderful summer on Point Pleasant Beach.  Sure, it’ll formally end tonight with a fireworks display.  But the culmination of another summer really happens with the Finals of the Big Joe Jersey Talent Show.  Big Joe, who dubs himself as the only disc jockey big enough to be visible from outer space, was up on stage last night introducing amateur talent form all over the Great Garden State to compete in front of a panel of celebrity judges.  Any idea who the smiling judge in the hat is?

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Why that’s Gene Cornish, of course.  What?  You mean you don’t know who Gene Cornish is?  Well after this you will.  Let me give you a hint.  Ever here of Steven Van Zandt?  That’s Little Stevie, of  Bruce Springsteen’s “E Street Band”, a Jersey Shore musician at the core.  (You may also be familiar with Little Stevie in his role as Silvio on The Sopranos, another iconic Jersey show biz undertaking.)  Turns out Little Stevie was a huge fan of a ’60s rock n’ roll band called The Rascals (who debuted in 1965 as The Young Rascals), of which Gene Cornish happens to be a founding member.  Us boomers happen to associate Felix Cavaliere’s name with the band, but Cornish was the brilliant guitarist who helped give the band its signature sound.  Here’s Cornish on stage two years ago, showing he can still handle the guitar licks from their first big hit, “Good Lovin'”.

I hadn’t realized back in the day that Good Lovin’ wasn’t an original Rascals hit, but was recorded a year earlier in 1965 by The Olympics – absent Cornish’s slick guitar, naturally.

Steven Van Zandt almost single-handedly campaigned to have Cornish and The Rascals inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and gave their induction speech in 1997.

 

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