Brain Pickings

Meanwhile: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Living Fabric of a City and Our Shared Human Longing to Be Understood

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A tender reminder that however vast our differences, we are bonded by the yearning to feel seen for who we are.

I’ve written before that every city needs a love letter. Though Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton — who gave us the wonderful Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

We meet the Mission Hipsters, who might as well be the Williamsburg Hipsters*, or the Insert-Any-City’s-Neighborhood-That-Has-Become-Synonymous-With-Hipsters Hipsters, an affectionate portrait of the cultural trope, down to “hand-knit dog sweater #62″:

And speaking of dogs, any dog-lover would relate to MacNaughton when she writes, “I don’t know any of the dog owners’ names, but I know all their dogs.’”

Many of the stories, which were originally created for MacNaughton’s column Meanwhile in The Rumpus, are also a meditation on the realities, often tragicomic realities, of modern life:

Others offer a lens on the invisible and often misunderstood threads that hold a community together, like the board games people play on the sidewalks of Chinatown, any Chinatown.

We’re reminded, too, of the heartening resurgence of maker culture in the digital age.

One of the most poignant stories is that of two intersections “a block away [yet] a universe away”: 5th and Mission streets on the one hand, a mecca for rapid gentrification and $6 soy lattes, and 6th and Mission on the other, a land of homelessness and produce scarcity. There are, MacNaughton writes, four types of people on 6th and Mission: residents of single-room occupancies, folks who sleep in a shelter and hang out on 6th street during the day, those who work on 6th street, and passers-by. On 5th and Mission, the four archetypes come from a different world: programmers, tourists, business people, and … Australians. (Among the book’s many gifts is MacNaughton’s penchant for infusing even the most uncomfortable of subjects with warm and amicable wit.)

Then there are the old-school Dolphin Club Swimmers, who plunge into the freezing waters of the Bay to swim alongside the dolphins as an eccentric yet immensely life-affirming antidote to the bystander quality of modern life.

But as a lover of libraries, I found the most heartwarming section to be the one about the San Francisco Public Library, where we meet Leah, “the first and only full-time social worker dedicated to a library, anywhere,” Charles, a formerly homeless man now employed at the library’s health and safety division, and the library’s colorful patrons, a microcosm of the city itself.

Mostly, however, Meanwhile is a gentle invitation to do as the title implies — pause and spend some time with those invisible, in-between moments that often slip unnoticed as we float in the trance of our big-plan-making lives. Because, after all, John Lennon was right when he sang that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” in Double Fantasy. It is in those meanwhile-moments, captured in MacNaughton’s beautiful ink-and-watercolor illustrations, that the fantasy collapses and the dizzying vibrancy of reality springs to life.

Bonus joy: A number of the spreads from the book are available as prints.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Chronicle Books

* This illustration is the only one from the book not from the Rumpus series — it was originally created for a Bold Italic piece by Stuart Schuffman.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield Covers Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in Space

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“Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…”

For no other reason than sheer soul-uplifting awesomeness, here’s astronaut Chris Hadfield — yes, him — covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station, which Hadfield considers “the world’s first great outpost away from the world”:

Hadfield, whose 2013 book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything is absolutely fantastic, also performed “Space Oddity” at TED 2014. Here’s a serendipitous shot that makes his guitar look like a tiny sun:

It may seem a small thing, silly even, but how little it takes to get Earth excited about space, and how very necessary that we do so. Perhaps we need more Chris Hadfields to rekindle public interest in space exploration.

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Marketing the Moon: How NASA Sold Space to Earth

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When the mission became the message and NASA undertook the monumental task of explaining rocket science to an audience looking to the stars.

It wasn’t until the soft beep…beep…beep of the Sputnik satellite reached Earth on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union could declare the first unequivocal success of their space program. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in secret, and the news took the United States by surprise. It was Soviet policy that every launch would be kept secret unless it was successful, and that its public would only be fed propaganda. The Soviet government would deny ever having attempted a manned lunar landing until 1990, and cosmonauts who died in the line of duty were erased from the public record. (The details of the training-accident death of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth, were covered up until 2013.)

One year after the surprise launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. The U.S. space program was determined to be markedly different from the Soviets — it would be an “open program” in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public using an extensive public relations program, explain authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek in Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (public library). It was a radical proposition: NASA, not the military, would release information and information would be released before, not after, a mission — an antithesis to the typical military strategy of confidentially. Tragedy would be reported alongside success.

Despite the somewhat cynical title, Marketing the Moon is not simply a story of the “selling” of the space program or the “spinning” of the NASA public relations machine — rather, it’s a rigorous and unvarnished look at one of the largest and most successful disseminations of science education in the twentieth century.

Reporters at Cape Canaveral during the launch of one of the Mercury missions

How could rocket physics, geology, astronomy, and more be explained to the lay person? How could the chain of information — from the lab to the Public Affairs Office to the TV producer to the host to the viewer at home — retain accuracy and clarity? Using rare press materials from the early days of NASA as well as the Apollo program — press releases, reference material, news bulletins, and photographs of reporters at work — Scott and Jurek show that the launch of a fact was as precarious as the launch of a missile: both could spectacularly fail to reach their targets.

The staff of the Public Affairs Office at Mission Control in Houston, 1965

The Public Affairs Office would control the consistency of the information, not its message. From the beginning, the office hired ex-newsmen to work as reporters inside the agency, determining which stories the public should know and in language that would be accessible — reporters knew what reporters would need. It was a move that today might be labeled “brand journalism,” but at the time was a revolutionary step for a government agency that needed its story told accurately and efficiently.

Press kits prepared for the major contractors in the Apollo programs, including IBM and Omega watches (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Control, however, became the topic of one of the most controversial media relationships set up by NASA: the LIFE magazine / World Book contracts, which paid $500,000 to the Mercury 7 astronauts and their wives in 1959 (because then, decades before women took to the stars, women’s role in space exploration amounted to being astronaut wives), as well as a $100,000 life insurance policy that wasn’t provided by the government. It was easy to see the contract as “cashing in” on a project funded by taxpayers, but NASA had perhaps naively understood the contract as protecting the astronauts from being hounded or exploited by the media. The astronauts could only talk about their personal lives, not the missions.

The exclusive LIFE magazine coverage of the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts

NASA created materials that addressed reporters’ needs in press releases, bylined articles, background materials, sponsored media symposiums, television newsreels, and fully produced radio broadcasts complete with interviews and sound effects. Every mission was explained pre-launch by the Public Affairs Office and reported with text and visuals far more elaborate than any press kit.

Before the Apollo 11 launch, journalists received The Apollo Spacecraft News Reference, a thick, three-ring binder with tabbed pages for easy thumbing. It included detailed diagrams of the command module, oxygen tanks, the spacesuit, and much more. It was an encyclopedia of technical information that would have been considered high-treason to release under the Soviets, but NASA considered the reference book an essential “classroom handout” for a proverbial public of fascinated students.

A series of books several hundred pages in length, that detailed technical concepts and vocabulary for reporters covering the Apollo 11 launch (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Any advertisement that mentioned the space program had to be submitted to NASA in order to both maintain both factual accuracy and ensure that no product was directly endorsed. Contractors could advertise that their product had traveled to the moon, but not that it had been used. No astronauts could be shown in an ad, only their anonymous suited counterparts. Photographs taken in space were government-produced and therefore were in the public domain.

Advertisements couldn’t show the face of any astronaut, nor suggest the product had actually been used on a mission. This ad for Tang would have been vetted for accuracy by the Public Affairs Office.

Television proved to be one of the hardest and most important outlets for NASA to tell its story. The Public Affairs Office made sure that the producers had access to model spacecraft, maps, graphs, charts, as well as interviews with scientists and guidance about the right questions to ask. The mission was the message; the concept was easy to explain, the execution much harder. Walter Cronkite, who would propel CBS into the pole position during the Apollo 11 broadcast, relied on information from the Public Affairs Office as a much-needed crash course:

Covering the space program presented a challenge to us all… There was a great deal we had to learn about the mechanics of space flight and the idiosyncrasies of the physics of moving bodies in the weightlessness and atmosphere-free environment of space.

The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite during the tense coverage of the Apollo 13 mission. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

The Public Affairs Office considered itself a champion of accurate scientific information, created to “furnish Congress and the media with the facts — unvarnished facts — about the progress of NASA programs,” explained its founder in 1959. Congress was just as important an audience, and it is an unfortunate reality that space education falls in and out of fashion with the budget of each new session. Public affairs was more than a perception, it was the life and death of the space program. When the lunar module of Apollo 11 began its fifty state tour, public relations was taken over by local affiliates, and the effect was more sideshow than science fair.

Dick Cavett interviews the Apollo 15 astronauts, 1971. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

However, this is only the story of the public perception of NASA and the space program, not the public’s appetite for space, which has thrived for decades on the ecstatic visions of Carl Sagan, and has been reinvigorated with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s relaunch, and loving tribute, to Sagan’s Cosmos. With his clear yet poetic communication of complex scientific ideas, Tyson has championed science on all platforms and has mastered the art of the soundbite:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more…

Communication of the work is as important as the work itself, something that Wernher von Braun knew as he stood to address the reporters at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center after the Apollo 11 astronauts were headed back to earth aboard the command module Columbia:

I would like to thank all of you for the fine support you have always given the program. Because without public relations and good presentations of these programs to the public, we would have been unable to do it.

For a bittersweet complement to Marketing the Moon, see Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s urgent and poetic antidote to the precarious fate of space exploration today.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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