Found in Space

You could call it the ultimate tech-support ticket.

For those of you who don’t keep up on space news – I get it, the NBA playoffs are on – NASA just came to the rescue of Voyager. No, not the old Star Trek sci-fi series, the even older space probe that was launched in the 1970s, left the solar system entirely in the 2010s and is still sending back information today.

Well … at least it was until November, when the most distant man-made object ever stopped sending signals.

Mind you, Voyager was still functional. But it couldn’t “speak” clearly – its signals were garbage. And so, armed with paper documentation and a two-day time lag in sending or receiving information, NASA went to work.

Five months of troubleshooting ultimately found that one chip had gone bad, corrupting a tiny piece of Voyager’s code. Uploading a fix meant working with a 47-year-old computer from 15 billion miles away. (Now THAT’S an overseas call center.)

And finally, on April 23, the news came out: Voyager was back on the line.

That lifts me up in so many ways. And not just because I’m a serious space geek. That’s part of it, mind you, but not all.

It also shows how much we can value what’s gone before. And how much we’ll do to save it.

That might sound a little strange. After all, nostalgia has deep roots in us and they get deeper every day. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were looking back with rose-colored glasses on the ‘50s and ‘60s. Today, it’s the ‘80s and so much more. In fact, thanks to the internet, we now get to sample and romanticize almost any era – or a mixture of them – as the “good old days.”

But that’s a surface appreciation and often a nearsighted one, choosing to ignore the worst of an earlier time or the best of today. “Back to the past” movements can even do tremendous damage, bulldozing today’s people and needs in the name of restoring a half-imagined golden age. Ultimately, we can’t live in a memory.

That said, we also tend to swing too hard the other way. Nostalgia trivializes, and if something isn’t lit by the current “Ooh, that’s cool and weird” spotlight, it tends to be rejected as old junk that’s no longer relevant. Tools, ideas, even people get set aside and forgotten in favor of newer and better.

But once in a while, we get a reminder that nothing is totally forgotten, or that the lessons of the past still have value now. And whether it’s programmers blowing the dust off of forgotten code to make a repair or long-ago veterans and refugees sharing their experience with a classroom, we stop for a moment, remember and learn.

Forgotten things can still have value. Forgotten people can still have value.

And when we pull off the impossible to help the forgotten, we remind ourselves what we’re capable of. After all, if we can spend five months to help one scientific instrument 15 billion miles away, how much more can we do to acknowledge and help the person next door?

So I’m happy for Voyager. And I’m even happier for us.

That’s the kind of support and determination that can make space for us all.

Unmasked

“Think of me, think of me fondly, when we’ve said goodbye.”

– “Think of Me” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

After 35 years, the chandelier will fall for the last time on Broadway. And that’s a strange thing for an ‘80s kid to know.

There aren’t a lot of constants in American life, but “The Phantom of the Opera” has been one of them. As a teenage choir student, I obsessed over every note of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mega-musical, and I had a LOT of company. It seemed to touch every aspect of our life.

Learning to drive? A cassette would magically appear in the passenger seat.

Practicing piano? The Phantom’s dramatically descending chords had to be included.

Singing along? You were … OK, probably out of luck unless you were a tenor or soprano, but it was still fun to try.

It came as no surprise to any of us when “Phantom” broke the record for longest-running Broadway musical and kept on going. By then, it had become more than a show: it was an institution, as much of a monument as the Empire State Building or Times Square.

But every show reaches its curtain. In February, the AP reported, Broadway’s “Phantom” will take its final bow. Far off in Britain, the original West End run will continue … for now. I type those last two words with hesitation, remembering that mega-musicals with mega-budgets aren’t a great fit for a pandemic world that doesn’t readily produce mega-audiences.

But as the light goes out on the Broadway run, I can’t help wondering – what held us all?

“Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in …”

– “Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

It’s fitting that the symbol of “Phantom” is a discarded mask. Because for all its spectacle and song, it’s a story of discovery.  

Some of the masks are internal:  characters having to discover who they really are and what they want, the basic impetus of any good story.

Some are dangerous, with the Phantom’s obsession disguising itself as love. That’s a mask we still have to watch out for in this day and age – the supposed lover, zealot or patriot who is willing to break what they “love” in order to keep it made in their own image.  

And some of that discovery means reaching backwards, facing the past clearly and deciding what it will be to us. Christine ultimately makes it a source of strength. The Phantom draws pain from it and makes it a weapon.

We still face all those choices and more besides.

“You’ll sing again, and to unending ovation!”

– “Prima Donna” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

In this day and age, of course, no show is every truly gone. We get soundtracks and videos and revivals and even movies (of variable quality). Those who want a taste of the experience can still find it, and without having to mortgage the house for tickets.

But in another way, it really is the end of an era. There’s a magic to live theater that nothing else really touches … the sense of the story coming to life for the first time between audience and performer, never quite the same. Broadway’s “Phantom” kept reinventing that story through the generations and the spotlight is a little cooler for its absence.

But the heart of the story still lives. The essential lessons will outlast any broken chandelier.

All we have to do is remove the mask and find them for ourselves.

Making Change

Duchess the Wonder Dog is wondering how to get up on our bed. It’s no small puzzle.

Not for the mind, I might add. As part lab and part border collie, Duchess is an honor student among canines. She’s especially gifted at the thesis problem of “Removing Objects From the Trash For Later Consumption: A Study in Subtlety,” bringing art to a field where her companion Big Blake has often gained renown through sheer raw talent and audacity.

But even in the most brilliant of dogs, the body has limits. And at 12 years old, those lines are a little clearer than they used to be.

Just a little bit of arthritis in the lower back and hind legs. Eyes that are blurrier than before. Even some recent balance issues (now mostly cleared up) that had my wife Heather wonder if she was trying to join the cool kids’ club, since Heather’s own MS often causes vertigo.

We’re not at the end of the line yet. I hope we won’t be for quite some time to come. And Duchess still has an energy reserve that can turn on at surprising moments, letting her tear around the back yard with great vigor.

But in dog terms, she’s closer to Helen Mirren than to Ellen Page, the Grande Dame rather than the Ingénue. A living reminder that – well, things change.

We’re not always so good at that.

We like to think otherwise, of course. After all, the easiest way to sell something in this country is still to make it “new and improved.” (An old Garfield strip once cracked “Gee, and all this time, I’ve been eating old and inferior.”) We like the latest and the greatest in our toys, our phones, any convenience we can manage.

But when change touches us personally, that’s another story. Rising hairlines. Falling assumptions. Faces that leave the building. A world that moves on regardless of what we like or don’t like – which is why Madison Avenue also does great business with nostalgia and items to fight the clock.

We don’t necessarily want to dip the universe in amber. But just like when we were kids, we often want the good stuff of growing up without the rest. Don’t touch me or the things I care about. Don’t touch my friends or family.

And especially don’t touch the loved ones who can’t speak for themselves.

We know better. Or we should. But that doesn’t make it easier.

My own family’s been fortunate when it comes to pets. Heck, we even had a goldfish make it to 13. But sometimes that makes things even harder as time goes on. The longer they stay, the stronger they grip. I know I wouldn’t trade anything for all the wonderful years – but I’d trade almost everything for just one more.

I know we’re not alone there.

What can you do? What we have to. Live in the moment, regardless of what it brings. Not without thought for the future, but not in fear of it, either. Enjoying the good and adding to it whenever and wherever we can.

We do touch the world even as it touches us. Especially in the lives of those closest to us.

I’ve joked before that Duchess has been Heather’s furry guardian angel for the last nine years. I sometimes wonder if she feels the same of us, taking a timid “rescue dog” and introducing her to a world where cuddles are OK and pizza crust is just a tilted plate away.

Soon our bed will have some pet steps near it. One more concession to a changing life, one more battle to keep things the same for a moment.

Duchess the Wonder Dog may wonder many things. So do I. But neither of us need wonder how much we care.

Some things, truly, never change.