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In my “spare time” I work as a full-time translator and interpreter for NASA’s International Space Station Program. Among the many marvelous secrets and surprises that lurk in the recesses of rocket science and the far corners of the near-Earth orbit, one thing about this program always stands out: the constant juxtaposition of the macro and micro.

Let me elaborate. The ISS is a 450 metric ton behemoth orbiting 16 times around the Earth each day. Billions of dollars, effort from hundreds of thousands of people, miles of cables, thousands of pounds of equipment are put into the station each year. At the same time, the station is a finely tuned work of art, a mobile dangling on a continuously changing center of mass, a fragile entity carrying in its belly an even more ephemeral crew. And the specialists who dream it, design it, build it and breathe life into it move from the macro to the micro with astonishing ease.

Take for instance the water specialists. At any given moment, the International Space Station has on it over one ton of water. Hundreds of liters are brought up by the Russian cargo vehicles, then the water is consumed by humans, used in cooling loops on the interior of the station, sweated and peed back out, processed and drunk again, or used as technical water in experiments, and so forth. The specialists may be discussing these large quantities of H2O, and then seamlessly transition to micro-liters of distillate or micrograms per liter of total organic compounds present in the liquid. The biologists who monitor the water quality talk about the number of CFU’s (colony-forming units) found in potable water, and are pleased if there are less than ten of these in any given sample. As an aside, CFU’s refer to harmful bacteria. The chemists’ work also thrives in the micro-units. How many micro-liters of sodium nitrate? How many micrograms per milliliter of the heavy metals…

A similar ability to zoom in and out a thousand-fold is exhibited by the rendez-vous and docking folks. On an average orbit, the space station flies at a speed of 17,239 mph, circling around the Earth almost 16 times daily. To be clear: this is fast. Very very fast. To think – at this speed the people working for the Space Station Program around the world manage to launch giant space vehicles, have them catch up to the station, and perform a gentle docking. To make this happen, the minutest details have to be addressed. For instance, usually a docking window, (the time where a docking is possible) is just a few minutes long. Multiple constraints drive this window to such a ridiculously small amount of time. They include the need for the perfect lighting (the cameras that tell ground control and the crew how the approach of the vehicle is going need to not be facing the sun, but need to have light, at a certain ideal angle), the availability of satellite comm. and ground sites which receive telemetry, wakefulness of crew, correct position of the station solar arrays, and so on. So again: the station’s flying at 17,000 miles, and a vehicle has to catch up to it, maneuver just so, and dock within a 5-10 minute window.

The powerful wings of the station, the so-called truss segments, extend to both sides of the pressurized modules and span the area of a football field. The strong steel construction holds the solar panels which collect and help generate enough electricity to feed the entire station. A structure seemingly so robust and yet, a single, targeted hit with a pebble-sized micrometeoroid and the entire station will go to vacuum in a matter of hours. The crew will have to depart immediately, and the whirring, living organism, with ammonia and current running through its cooling loops and cables, with gigabytes of memory stored on the 100+ computers onboard, with the hundreds of thousands of man-hours lovingly invested in it – will turn to a lifeless chunk of metal drifting aimlessly through space.

The engineers, designers, physicists, technicians, programmers, flight controllers and others who work the program do miraculous things daily. They are like general physicians who can assess the wellbeing of the entire person, and also just happen to know the person’s entire genetic makeup, know the names of the 40 bones in each foot, the number of vertebrae on his back, the number of hairs on his head. And if you ask them, they’ll even tell you by name the hundreds of micro-organisms happily dwelling in this person’s gut.


I used to live in a room full of mirrors
Where all I could see was me.
But then my love came and saved me,
She set my poor heart free.

– Jimi Hendrix

There is no way to write about this without feeling that I can never do him justice. A few years ago my sister and I decided to get in touch with our old friend on his 25th birthday. We only had his momma’s phone number, where he lived when we lived back in St.Louis and all went to high school together.

His momma scared me even then, but I got myself together and dialed the familiar number.
– Hello?
– Hi, may I speak to Jamaal please?
– He don’t live here anymore. He moved down to South Carolina to live with his granma.
– This is an old friend of his, Anya, I’m just trying to find him – wanted to wish him a happy birthday…
– Oh yeah, I remember you. Well Miss Anya, his number over there is:…….
– Thank you.
– Take care now.

My sister and I hung up and dialed the new number. Now it was her turn to talk.

– Yes?
– Um…hello. May I speak to Jamaal please?
– He ain’t here. He wenover to his cousin’s. Who is this?
– This is an old friend of his…could I have that phone number?
– Well…alright. It’s……..
– Thanks.

We dialed the next number, the phone rang and I could hear my heart beating in the receiver. Jamaal picked up.

– Hello.
– Hey man, happy birthday!
– Heeeeey…duuude. Anya….and Liza too?…

Like I said, could never do him justice. Could never describe those dreds, that hunched-over posture of someone who’s been beaten by life, it seemed, for much too long. The sway of his ape-like arms and his wide gait as he crashed through the air around him, leaving a powerful impression of terror, pity, and awe.

His soul was a brilliant fire which breaks out of the form and lurches towards the sky when doused by fuel. He was that tragic hero, that bright, falling star that burns as it enters the atmosphere….Certainly not meant for these days, he seemed to come from the 1970’s, when all of American culture was rocked by convulsion and rebirth.

Jamaal lived Jimi Hendrix, talked in quotes from the Doors and the Dead, breathed in menthol cigarettes and out self-fulfilling prophecies. There was never a person who saw through others clearer: his verdict was always dead on. In the end it was as if life bubbled out of his and scorched him from the inside. He would not be sedated and rebelled, but the everyday tedium proved too powerful. Like a giant, callous steam roller it annihilated the energy that once was.

* * *

Strange that I am here at work, surrounded by pictures of my children, Houston summer heat, the International Space Station and office supplies, a million light years away from those times and that life. Our friend Jamaal turned 30 this year. We didn’t call him. Didn’t try to find where his lair is (that’s what he called the many places where he was always “staying”). Maybe we should, just to say hi. Or rather, to say heeeey, duuude.

Dear Blood Donor,

I never really thanked you, but I should. Several years ago you saved my life.

I was in the hospital giving birth to my son, but something went terribly wrong and I had to have an emergency operation without which I would have died, and possibly, so would he. This was not the kind of thing doctors perform every day, or even every week. They hadn’t expected it, hadn’t prepared for it. But in part thanks to the fact that you had taken the time out of your day, and taken your very own blood and just given it up – the surgery could go on. I lost a lot of blood that day, but because you cared, just because you wanted to do a good, selfless, giving thing, blood was pumped back into me. Your blood. Now I am your blood sister. For life. Thank you.

Since that day I had promised myself to return the favor. Several times I had signed up to give blood, and each time something came up. Either I had gotten deathly ill several days before and had to reschedule my appointment, or had unwittingly taken an aspirin the previous night, or I was on antibiotics, or they just plain canceled the blood drive.

But I just wanted to let you know that today, finally, I was able to give blood. To give it back, in a way, and also to give it forward. To think: soon there will be another person out there, a blood brother or sister, with my blood flowing through their veins…my blood which is actually yours.

I created a “Postulates” category because I believe that most every person on Earth has a set of postulates that they base their world view on. According to this article, a postulate is a “proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be either self-evident, or subject to necessary decision. Therefore, its truth is taken for granted, and serves as a starting point for deducing and inferring other (theory dependent) truths.”

Great definition. Even the most pragmatic and “rational” among us hold several postulates near and dear, although they may be unwilling to acknowledge that at the very core of their rationalized world view lies something that is not proved, is subject to necessary decision, and whose truth is taken for granted. Recall that the term “postulate” in its traditional use was and continues to be used in mathematics and logic (and nothing can be more logical than logic, right?). At the very heart of the geometry that engineers and architects use every day to build real, complex, and sustainable structures lies the belief that, say, “A straight line may be drawn from any given point to any other” (Postulate #1 of Euclidean Geometry).

Here you can read all about the other postulates...

A similar paradox lies at the heart of even the most robust system of understanding and viewing the world to date: the system of scientific inquiry based on reason and observation.

What are the postulates of the scientific-minded thinker?
1. The scientific inquiry approach will work every time.
2. Nature is not random – it works according to discoverable laws and patterns.
3. There are answers to be found.

My father, a hard-core scientist, has openly admitted that behind his ardent, ferocious research and inquiry into the way nature works (he is a biochemist) lies the conviction (ie. stong belief) that there are patterns in nature, there are answers to his questions, and he is using the best tool to get to them. These are beliefs because they have not been proven conclusively. Note: for a postulate to become a law, it has to be proven for all cases, no exceptions. That’s why even in science, most of the “laws” people take for granted are actually termed “hypotheses”.

So there goes the whole “reason vs. faith” confrontation. It’s more like “concealed faith vs. open, self-confessed faith”.

Faith is fundamental to the human experience. So, returning to my initial point, I started a Postulates category to create a special place for entries on my own postulates, and on the postulates of others: the backbone of my system of beliefs, and of yours.

Image credits: Clay Mathematics Institute,

Just a mirror for the sun...

Road trippin’ with my two favorite allies, fully loaded we got snacks and supplies… (Red Hot Chilli Peppers)

We are driving into the sun, still high over the horizon, the passenger window is open, mine is pegged with a wooden toy railroad piece to keep it from sliding down into oblivion. Speakers blasting 80’s rock ‘n roll, my two favorite allies – Munchkin V and Mr.Fatty Pants, bobbing their heads to the music in the back seat.

With the heat, the haze from the humidity, the music, the wind – I feel hysterically elated. The feeling where pain is so immense that you find yourself at the other extreme; you feel a survivor, knowing that despite it all there is the sun and the joy and life to be lived and children to be loved. You scream out the words to the song at the top of your lungs, you bellow out the hurt and the numbness lifts.

I pop in another disk – “Happy Music for Yar”. Lizard made it for me several years ago. It’s a compilation of soul-warmers and joyful heart wrenchers. Most familiar, the rest – seeming so.

Say Hallelujah, throw up your hands, the bucket is kicked, the body is gone…Dry your eyes, and stand up right, put a smile on your face, He wouldn’t want us to cry(Tracy Chapman)
That first one’s from the Lizard herself. She rides in the passenger seat, grinning at me, we’re throwing up our hands together, the kids giggle in the back, I steer with my knees into the horizon…

In the haze, the stormy haze…I’ll be ’round, I’ll be loving you always(Coldplay)
This one’s from God. I am reminded of the most important thing.

A howling wind is whistling, in the night
My dog’s growling in the dark
Something’s pulling me, outside
To ride around in circles.

– Iggy Pop
This one brings my cousin S and Lizard back, and our road trip from San Diego to San Jose. We’re coasting through the central California fertile crescent, the sun is high, the ocean blue. Munchkin V and Mr.Fatty Pants are there too, and I am joyful. What a collection of most treasured people I have in my car as we roll on!

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone… (The Doors).
This brings the Anticlimactic of the Underworld, Mr. Morrison-Taylor himself. He’s the one from whom I stole the idea of having imagined folks ride with you in the car. He shared it with me near 15 years ago. With his dreaded hair and maddening banter, I could not convince him then that “Anticlimactic” is not the rightful melding of the “Anti” (as in, anti-norms, ie. rebellious) and the climactic (in his mind – very important, vital)….

By the time the kids and I arrive at the park for our three-person BBQ, I am almost at peace. As if just returning from a therapeutic meet-up with the greatest people on Earth. And the pain is only a memory.

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