The “f” word

My 8-year-old nephew Griffin failed at growing the biggest sweet potato in the world. Earlier this year, he dug a little garden in his back yard and planted an old potato that had started to sprout. A budding scientist, he explained his project to me when I visited him after my return from abroad. “I think I’m going to dig it up on October 3rd,” he said, with the furrowed brow and compulsive seriousness of an 8-year-old budding scientist. “I think that will be the right time.”

And so he did. On the cloudless autumn morning of October 3rd, his spade unearthed a potato that had become the nucleus of an impressively complex network of roots. It was not, however, by any stretch, the biggest sweet potato in the world. “I’m a failure,” he wailed. And he was right. Sort of.

Since I’ve been back I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. I suppose it’s just me wrestling with a way to sum up my recent Range Living, and with what to do next. Not to mention the fact that of the first three meals I tried to cook, all ended in disaster (think: flaming chicken).

In a strict constructionist view, I failed at what I set out to do when I left New York in April of 2009. The evidence is clear: I’m no longer away, and I’m not sure that I’ll be leaving again anytime soon. Yes, there are things I would have done differently. But to me, half the fun – of life, of travel – is having things not quite work out as planned. It’s how you learn…so you can do things differently next time. Or do different things.

I’ve always been kinda obsessed with hero-worship in American culture. In the public sphere, chance-takers are presented as rebel-heroes after they have leaped *and* landed, when they are confident and smiling. It’s only once they’ve sat down to sushi with an interviewer that we hear about their ramen-eating days. Or months. Or years. Looking back from the point of success, though, it all seems inevitable. A person’s personal story reads like a novel, preordained from page one. In hindsight, we can divine the future from the tea leaves quite easily.

But what about all the chance-takers who never succeed (so to speak)?

Griffin’s shoulders drooped. He kicked the treasonous soil, pouting. He carried the offending potato to the edge of the woods and hacked it up with a spade. “I’m a failure!” he repeated, wallowing in self-pity that bordered on the adolescent.

I tried to explain to him that many famous leaps in science came about as a result of a failure (or a screw-up). He didn’t want to hear about it at that moment, but I hope he was still listening.

So Griff, here it is again: It’s important to embrace failure – indeed, to view it as a success.

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Neverending countdown

I arrived in Orlando, Florida, in a state.

I was stressed – about the cost of the trip, about what day the shuttle would launch and therefore what how to manage my hotel, car and flights. It was too much. I decided I would stay only until Wednesday; if the launch was delayed again, I wouldn’t be here to see it.

I was cranky – I had slept just 3 hours the night before and my taxi driver got lost on the way to the Westchester airport…at 6 am we were driving around the Bronx, or Yonkers, or *somewhere*, trying to find the way. We made it.

I was frazzled – When I went to pick up my rental car in Orlando, the $43/day rate that I had seen online the night before was suddenly $80/day. EIGHTY DOLLARS. I freaked out. The rental dude took pity on me and give me the car for $60/day. SIXTY DOLLARS. Good god.

I hopped in the car, my eyeballs like sandpaper, and drove towards Kennedy Space Center in order to pick up my passes and such for the launch.

I was a few miles away when I spotted it. In the distance, across the marsh flats, Space Shuttle Discovery was just sitting there on the launch pad. And that was it. I was an excited little kid. Any crazy idea about leaving before the launch flew right out of my head. I’m here for the long haul.

As you know by now, the launch has been delayed every day since Monday. First there were some mechanical problems. Now it’s the weather – rainy and windy. I’m going crazy with anticipation, getting psyched up every day only to be let down again. If I’m losing my mind, I can’t even imagine what the crew is going through!

In the meantime, I’m amusing myself by meeting Floridians here in Cocoa Beach. On Tuesday evening I went to The Surf for dinner. Like the Sea Aire Motel, where I’m staying, The Surf is a local institution. In its prime, before the Marriotts and resorts and their respective restaurants moved in, The Surf was the place where journalists covering shuttle launches ate their steak or seafood. “They all would come here,” said Alden, the Cocoa Beach native who befriended me at the bar. “Even Walter Cronkite!”

Alden, who works on the NASA shuttle contract for Boeing, is anticipating losing his job after the last launch. It being election night, we and others at the bar drank wine and discussed the horrific Florida economy, the coming NASA-related job losses, the Tea Party, and other depressing subjects. Everyone, however, remains upbeat and tirelessly friendly.

Indeed, since I arrived I’ve gotten sucked in to a number of 90-minute conversations that should have been 2 minutes of small talk. I’m doing more nodding and smiling than I did in SE Asia. There are a lot of old folks down here (many of them, as we all know, ex-New Yorkers), they’re all..friendly. They all seem to need someone to ramble to.

On the other hand, I’ve also met some nice fellow shuttle-launchers. There was a cute scene yesterday afternoon, when I met my neighbors in the motel. I ran into a few of them outside the room, and we started chatting about where we planned to watch the launch. I explained I have VIP tickets, and they were all suitably impressed. From then on, whenever anyone new would join the group, one woman would introduce me: “This is Christina. She has VIP tickets!”

So that’s me, the VIP in room 3.

Anyway, fingers crossed that the launch happens tomorrow. Florida is amusing, but if it’s too cold to go to the beach…get me outta here!