Space, Quicksand, Road Trips and Girl Power

View of sky through dashboard of car on highway

If I’ve managed to stay sane during this “transition” in my life (and that’s a big IF, more on that later), I owe a lot of it to Radiolab.

Radiolab, for the uninitiated among you, is a program on NPR, and according to their website, is “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

It’s mind-bogglingly cool stuff, presented in an often funny, sometimes devastating, always engaging way. I’ve taken to listening to it while walking my dog, and I’ve been known to circle the same loop in my suburb several times in order to keep walking so I can finish an episode. See, it’s even good for my exercise regimen. The down side is that I tend to resent the friendly people at the dog park who want to chat while I’m mid-episode. Leave me be, people, I’m having my mind blown here!

Without a full-time job, I have found that my brain gets a little lazy. I have this image of my brain cells, used to tackling 200 emails, 8 meetings and at least one office-related crisis per 24-hour period, languishing on a deck chair in my cranium, sipping an umbrellaed drink and growing stupider by the day. So I love Radiolab for how it sweeps in like an efficient waiter, grabbing the empties and discreetly depositing the check next to a glass of clear, iceless water.

Their ap, which is free, provides an archive of episodes, so the other day, I listened to one about quicksand. Being a child of the 80’s, I grew up scared of quicksand, but according to the Radiolab guys, kids these days aren’t. Quicksand has lost it’s fear factor. One theory put forward by Radiolab is that because we humans don’t explore vast new territory anymore (no more space shuttles, no more moon landings), we don’t fear dropping without warning into oblivion. If you think about it, it makes sense; we don’t have as much fear of the physical “unknown”, aptly represented by quicksand.  We fear a germs & disease – hence, the zombie craze – or “the other” (foreigners, immigrants, liberals/conservatives) – I hypothesize these are represented by vampires and cop show villains – but space, the final frontier? Nah, what we fear is right here at home.

As I pondered the quicksand story, I was struck by an article I’d read where Buzz Aldrin, former astronaut, gave his take on Gravity, the Sandra Bullock/George Clooney/Ed Harris’ voice movie currently blowing minds, computer-generated satellites and box office records to smithereens. In the article, the astronaut praises the movie for bringing space (of the outer variety) back into our pop culture, because according to him, we are on the brink of “losing” space (see previous mention of no more space shuttle missions).

Here’s where the questioning of my sanity comes in. Recently, on a whim, I decided to drive 4 hours roundtrip to Tulsa to see Gravity, again, in IMAX 3D. 4 hours for a 90 minute film experience. This strikes me as bizarre, but hey, there has to be some perk to being without full time employment, right? The 4 hours passed in a moment, helped along by a glorious changing sky (see above photo), a sing-a-long so enthusiastic that I temporarily lost my voice (seriously, a woman needs to play Enjolras in Les Mis. It could work.), and some scintillating program about health care on public radio.

The film, rendered in 3D on a huge screen in what felt a private screening – there were no more than 8 people in the theater – was breathtaking. As a kid who probably wanted to be an astronaut at one point, and who was rudely introduced to the dangers of space in 1986 when the Challenger exploded, I found the movie beautiful and scary as heck. Drifting untethered, spinning through nothing and being unable to stop…shudder.

In this second viewing, as I pondered our fading fear of space, I also discovered something else about female heroes in today’s popular culture. I’ve been reading lately about how there aren’t many of them, and if they are, they are uber-women, larger than life, often one dimensional, and always clad in bust-enhancing attire. Sandra Bullock’s character, wryly named Ryan, is, contrastingly, a wonderful hero figure. She is the one the cocky pilot and smooth-talking mission controller must defer to as she works on the Hubble telescope. She’s the one who experienced tragedy and just kept going. She’s the one who figures out what she needs to do to survive in space, and she is the one who ***SPOILER ALERT*** stands taller than the world, strong and powerful and with her breasts fully covered, in the end.

So anyway, as you can see, my brain is in a bit of spin these days – a big thanks to Radiolab for helping me to keep my mind open and full at the same time. Namaste.

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