Watching The Family Stone

The Family StoneI was looking forward to seeing “The Family Stone” in December 2005, a Christmas comedy movie with an all-star cast that the Wall Street Journal slammed as the ultimate Hollywood liberal family fantasy. The uptight son and his uptight girlfriend leave New York City behind to visit his laid back family in snowy Connecticut. A downhill sled ride into hilarity as this blended family fails to accept the newcomer. But a dark current lurked underneath the hilarity, as the mother has terminal breast cancer. Being the second Christmas without my mother after she died from breast cancer, I wasn’t prepared for this and wept through the end credits.

I haven’t tried to watch “The Family Stone” until this year, the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I bought a copy on iTunes to see if I could overcome the emotional pain that I associated with the movie. I could not, not then. Between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, which was the second Christmas without my father since he died from throat cancer, I saw the movie a half-dozen times. The emotional pain lessens with each watching. I can now enjoy the humor without being overwhelmed by the sorrow.

The thing that disturbed me about the movie was how I missed all the warning signs in real life.

Several scenes hinted at the mother’s illness in the movie. The pregnant daughter lies down next to her napping mother, who wakes up and asks her who else knows. The laid back son gets his father to admit that something was wrong and wasn’t planning to tell the family until after the holidays. The mother unbuttons her nightgown to reveal a flat chest with a long scar tissue and her husband placing a hand on where a breast once belongs. And, on Christmas morning, the mother tells the uptight son that getting married won’t change the fact that she was sick.

With my parents living in Sacramento after they retired, I saw my mother only three or four times a year when I took Amtrak from Silicon Valley to visit them. Like the mother in the movie, my mother had a waxy complexion that I always associated with old age. When my father called the family together to say goodbye to her on his birthday in March 2004, my mother was nothing but skin and bones on the living room day bed. She died three days later.

Despite seeing him more often after my mother died, I wasn’t aware that he was dying from throat cancer. The only hint that something was wrong was an out-of-the-blue phone call from his older sister about morphine pills, which I knew about but didn’t realize that morphine was a family code word for terminal cancer. On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death in March 2012, I drove up to Sacramento to discover that my father was nothing but skin and bones. He died six weeks later.

Like the younger adult children in the movie, I was the last one to find out about his illness and his death. Only time will lessen the emotional pain of losing a parent.

A Lightning-Struck Christmas Tree

After I joined the campus ministry and moved into a five-bedroom Victorian in downtown San Jose with 11 brothers in 1992, my first Christmas away from my family was very special. Being brothers of one spirit, we were too poor to buy a Christmas tree. (That didn’t prevent them from charging $500 USD in long distance phone calls and fighting over who owed what on the 20-page bill each month.) Besides, no one had any Christmas decorations to put on a tree. One brother, a graphic artist, found a creative solution to our dilemma.

This brother drove up to the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley to look for a Christmas tree. There are several Christmas tree farms that will let you cut down a tree, but I think you need to bring your own ax or saw to cut with. He went up there with nothing but a prayer. Several hours later he drove back with a tree tied to the top of his station wagon.  He found it on the ground next to a  90-foot-tall tree struck by lightning in a recent storm that was missing its tree top.

Using a borrowed hack saw to cut off the charred stump and setting up an old cast-iron pot as a tree stand, he positioned the seven-foot-tall tree in the living room (the ceiling was ten-foot-tall). It was the ugliest Christmas tree I ever saw. The brothers and sisters had serious doubts about it being a Christmas tree. The wide boughs could each hold enough snow to wallop someone below if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As for Christmas decorations, he emptied out the kitchen of all the pots and silverware that we weren’t using to hang on the tree with yarn and clear tape. Weird as it looked with pots, forks, knives and spoons hanging upside down from the branches like metallic icicles, it looked like a real Christmas tree and became the centerpiece of our white elephant holiday party. Everyone who saw it praised God for the miracle it was.

Since everything we could cook or eat with was hanging on the tree, we didn’t have a single argument over extra dirty dishes in the sink between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

Flying High With Orion Spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft SplashdownAs a child growing up in the 1970’s, spaceflight was a big deal. I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing while in utero with my parents a month before I was born. While the moon landings were old news by the time I got into school, the Apollo-Soyuz test flight between America and the Soviet Union, the fateful re-entry of Skylab, and the space shuttle program were future milestones. Spaceflight became routine—and home computers caught my interest—in the 1980’s. With the exception of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) shuttle disasters, spaceflight was no longer a big deal. With the flawless test flight of the Orion spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, perhaps that will change.

Orion wasn’t on my mind at work until I noticed the headline tucked away on a corner of The New York Times website. (Unless something blows up and lives are lost, routine spaceflight will never capture the front page again.) I watched the NASA videos for launch and splashdown of the 4.5-hour mission.

The new spacecraft made a single Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the space shuttles and the International Space Station travel, before the second stage rocket boosted it into a 3,600-mile high orbit to fly through the Van Allen radiation belt and simulate a 20,000 MPH atmospheric re-entry that blasts the heat shield at 4,000 F degrees. From launch to splashdown, 1,200 sensors sent back telemetry data to help engineers prepare for the next test flight.

As I read the news commentary and review the technical specs of the Delta IV heavy rocket (which normally launches satellites into orbit), I felt like the kid who reviewed the NASA pamphlets on space missions at the local library with hope and excitement. The threat of nuclear annihilation from the Cold War in the 20th century was a good motivation to get off the planet. With the threat of global warming in the 21st century, getting off the planet is still a good idea. The survival of humanity will depend on going into space.

A lot of the focus for the new manned spaceflight is from Earth orbit towards Mars and beyond. (This is where the “deep space” label gets slapped on by commentators, which in my opinion should apply only to space missions beyond the solar system.) What about Venus (second planet from the sun)? Granted, Earth’s sister world isn’t the most inviting place for a manned mission with a sulfuric acid atmosphere hot enough that lead is a liquid. But, like Mount Everest being the tallest peak on Earth, it’s there to visit and closer than Mars.

Blogger Michael J. Battaglia in Scientific American makes a good argument for a flyby visit to Venus: “A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet’s gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus’s relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights—all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars. Besides, for a long-duration mission, we might not want to commit our astronauts to landing on Mars only to find out that they could not walk, their musculature had so degenerated upon arrival. In contrast, the crew of a long Venus round-trip would land not on a faraway planet but back on Earth, where medical attention is readily available if needed.”

Due to ever smaller budgets, NASA will have to compromise mission objectives to get the most bangs for the buck. The next unmanned test flight for Orion to cruise around the moon will be in 2017 or 2018. With the Chinese and the Russians planning missions to the moon, a new space race might make spaceflight more exciting and less routine again.

Verizon Wireless’s Tone-Deaf Commercial

Verizon Wireless has a new commercial with football player AJ Green sporting the new Beats by Dre Solo2 wireless headphones. We see Green pulling up to a reserved parking spot, turns the car engine off, puts on a wired headphone set, nods his head to the music, leaves his car, and doesn’t stop until wired headphone goes flying off his head. Of course, someone else notices this little mistake. Next he’s putting on a wireless headphone, leaving the car and tucking a cellphone into his coat pocket. This commercial was wrong on so many levels.

I had to re-watch the video several times to make sure that Green wasn’t driving the car with headphones on, which is illegal in most states according to the AAA. (The list, interestingly enough, follows the blue-red political split between the Democratic “nanny” states and the Republican “don’t tread on me” states.) Some people just might miss that part of the commercial and assume that driving around with headphones on was okay. A bad example for young people who wear Beats headphones.

The commercial doesn’t show what the wired headphones was plug into inside the car. Since headphone jacks on car radios are nonexistent, and this is a commercial for wireless headphones, the wired headphones were probably plugged into a cellphone.  I can’t imagine anyone putting headphones on, leaving the cellphone inside the car, closing the door on the cord, and walking away until the headphones fall off. That’s just plain stupid.

From the reviews I read online, Beats headphones are terrible. At $299.99 USD, terribly expensive. These headphones have a dedicated following on the hip-hop music scene. I went to my local Best Buy to see what the fuss was about. Listening to the demo music, the Beats were no better or no worse than the ten buck headphones I get for listening at home.

After seeing this commercial, I’ve became aware of people wearing wired Beats headphones: waiting for public transit, riding on bicycles on the streets, and, yes, driving cars on the freeway. Just what we need on California freeways: more tone-deaf idiots.