“Following the Light of the Sun, We Left the Old World”

I’ll cede that Christopher Columbus is a historically challenging figure (and apparently was a challenging guy even in his own day), but one also has to cede that he left behind a legacy that has inspired explorers for half a millennia.

Honestly, Columbus Day is usually one of those holidays that I’m grateful for the day off but think little about, but this year it is a little more special to me. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to walk ground that Columbus had walked, and to step foot in water that Columbus had sailed.

Columbus is one of those figures who is so far removed that it’s easy to think of him as a historical figure, a larger-than-life story that’s central to our national creation myths, so the experience of being where he had been — and not as a legend but as a young man — was one of getting a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood man who was Cristoforo Colombo, a very brave and very human individual who changed the world.
The experience was made richer by the fact I was there for a space exploration symposium, gathering with others from around the world united in a desire to sail further into the new ocean of space, to again visit New Worlds.

Regardless of how one feels about this day as a celebration of the past, it should stand as the embodiment of a holiday our calendar other lacks — a celebration of exploration, and a challenge for the future to dare, to sail, to find, and to continue to seek.

An Ill Wind — Things I Learned From Katrina

david hitt with hiking stick

Be patient; I’ll explain this picture at the end.

I feel a bit guilty for enjoying that night.

I remember being outside, that night 10 years ago. I remember the wind and the rain. I remember how glorious it was — the storm was the embodiment of the raw experience of being in nature, with all its power and majesty. I remember the feeling of the driving wind and the pouring rain, and it seeming beautiful. I remember basking in the overwhelming sensation of it.

Elsewhere, people had lost their homes. Elsewhere, people had died.

I didn’t know. I hadn’t heard yet.

Monday, August 29, 2005. The day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Ten years ago today.

That night, to me, Katrina was the most remote thing in the world. Certainly, newswise, it was a Big Deal, but, honestly, it seemed, not one that affected me. It was a tragedy, but that tragedy affected others. When I realized where the wind and rain had come from, I felt somewhat guilty that I had enjoyed something — the remnants of Katrina that blew over Huntsville — that had caused such devastation elsewhere, but that was it. It just wasn’t part of my life. Not that I wasn’t sympathetic, not that I didn’t feel bad for them, just that I wasn’t … touched? … affected? by it. It was bad, but it wasn’t personal.

I first felt the wings of the butterfly that weekend, in the smallest of ways, and, looking back on my attitude, the pettiest. I had made plans for friends in Jackson, Miss,. to come visit that weekend. Given the situation in Jackson, which was still without power and would be for a while, where gasoline was a precious commodity when it could be found at all, and where people were, even that far inland, dealing with substantial damage, my friend decided — and rightfully so — not to come to Huntsville, and to try to help out there instead. And I, I’m ashamed to admit, was annoyed by the inconvenience. In my limited defense, I still didn’t get it; still didn’t understand the scope and magnitude of what had happened.

I’m also a bit embarrassed to admit that the next time Hurricane Katrina blew into my life, it was in a positive way. My then-wife got a job a few months later on a state contract working with Katrina evacuees in north Alabama. These were people who had been transported out of New Orleans; basically, they all boarded a bus, and were driven up Interstate 65. Along the way, they were dropped off basically randomly based on how many people could be housed in a given location. With that luck of the draw, they might end up somewhere like the cities of Birmingham or Huntsville, or they might end up in a smaller Alabama town like Cullman. Her job was to help those people adjust to life after Katrina, either by helping them get settled in Alabama or by helping them move back home. It was a good job for her, and a contract that paid rather well. It is, they say, an ill wind that blows no one good, and I had become a beneficiary of the hurricane. But it also meant that I had the opportunity to meet a couple of her clients, to put faces and stories and lives to the headlines I had seen months before. Real people, with real struggles. The distant became a little closer.

The next significant time Katrina and I crossed paths was in October 2006, when I visited Stennis Space Center, the first time I’d been to the coast since landfall. It was very odd seeing the changes in Biloxi and Gulfport, where I’d visited several times during my Mississippi newspaper days. In some ways, it was hard to believe it had already been a year, in others, it was hard to believe it had only been a year. Some buildings still looked like they must have immediately after the hurricane, while others (like, of course, casinos) had impressive new structures designed and built post-Katrina. It was interesting talking to people at Stennis about how their lives had been, and continued to be, different after Katrina.

Two years later, I would become engaged to, and subsequently dis-engaged from, a woman from Louisiana whom the storm had blown, indirectly, to Huntsville and thus into and out of my life. A more remote connection to the storm, but a more personal impact on me.

Today, supporting the SLS program, I have cause occasionally to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans to visit Stennis and the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the rocket’s engines are being tested and its core stage is being built, respectively. More time has passed, but my connection increases again. Just two weeks ago, I was driving through Waveland, which was utterly destroyed by the storm. The tenth anniversary was a very real and present thing on that trip, but, there, as everywhere, life goes on.

Back in May 2006, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on what was the first week-long vacation I’d ever taken, made possible by that state contract job. In a local coffee shop there, a saw a hiking stick for sale, handcrafted from wood felled during Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm was the author of that vacation, it seemed appropriate to take the stick home as a memento, even though I had never really been hiking at the time.

When I began hiking three years later — in the wake of the departure of the aforementioned Louisianan ex-fiancée — I used that stick, and have used it many many times since.

The stick is a reminder — of Katrina, specifically, and all the ways it touched my life, but also, in general, a reminder that no man is an island, that something that seems completely remote and unconnected can end up changing one’s life in ways you could never anticipate.

And, just as importantly, a reminder to appreciate that behind every headline are real people with real struggles.

To remember that every story is somebody’s story,

My Bad Advice On Book Publishing

printed manuscript for Homesteading space

The original manuscript for “Homesteading Space.”

“How did you go about getting your books published?”

When I had two people ask me to tell this story in two weeks, I realized that maybe I should, you know, write it down. I get this question every so often, and I’m always glad to share my experiences, even if they’re not necessarily that helpful.

Because, really, my answer to that question, if I’m being honest is: “Be really lucky.”

My first book, “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,” has its origins back in 2003. I was working for the NASAexplores education web site, coming up with story ideas for weekly articles, and happened to notice that it was the 30th anniversary of the Skylab program. I started working on an article about the history of Skylab, and, in the process of researching it, noticed that there was a Skylab astronaut, Owen Garriott, living here in Huntsville. Inspired by this fortuitous discovery, I contacted Dr. Garriott to see if he would talk to me for the article. He was so gracious and helpful that I decided to try my luck again and contact two more Skylab astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Jerry Carr, so I could include one from each crew.

The thing that struck me working on the article, though, was how little information there was about Skylab. Really, I thought, someone should write a book about it. With that thought was the idea that writing said book would be a fun thing to do, but that such undertakings are the bailiwick of professional writers, not people like me.

Fast forward a few months later, and there was a reunion event in Huntsville marking the 30th anniversary of Skylab. The book idea popped into my head again, and I pushed it aside just as successfully on this occasion as the first.

Fast forward another couple of months, and I’m at Space Center Houston for the International Space Station Educator’s Conference. (It would later become the Space Exploration Educators Conference, but at this point the idea that human exploration beyond Earth orbit might actually happen again was only about three weeks old.) In the museum, they have the best Skylab exhibit anywhere. Walking through it, the book idea pushed its way into my head again. I dismissed it again with the same logic — that’s something for professional writers to do — but this time it pushed harder. “You know, David, you write for a living. That’s kind of what ‘professional writer’ means.”

I decided that when I got home, I would contact Dr. Garriott with the idea, which I was then picturing as offering to ghost-write his memoir, including Skylab and his Spacelab mission on the shuttle. I sent him a note asking him if he’d let me buy him lunch to discuss the idea. Honestly, at the time, I figured there was a very high likelihood he would say no to the book, but that I would get to have lunch with someone who spent two months in space, which still would have counted as a huge win to me.

Instead he said yes, let’s do it.

Well, um, OK.

david hitt, owen garriott, and joe kerwin

The three ‘Homesteading Space’ co-authors, hard at work on the book

Again, honestly, I’d now gotten a bit ahead of myself, I had no idea how to go about writing a book with an astronaut, but I figured, not completely incorrectly, that it was a lot like writing other things, but much longer. I also had no idea how to go about getting a book co-written with an astronaut published, and that was perhaps a little more daunting.

I called a friend of mine who worked for a major publishing house in New York at the time, and he gave me the one bit of good advice this story contains: Go to a bookstore. Find books similar to the one you’re writing. Look through the acknowledgements of those books. Find ones where the author thanks his agent. You now know agents who will work with this type of book, and do well enough that the author thanks them for it. Send proposals to those agents.

As it happens, I never even actually used the one bit of good advice in this story. Owen had the time had been helping another author, Colin Burgess, with a book on NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, and mentioned to Colin that he and I were going to be working on a memoir. Colin, whom I knew through the online collectSPACE community, said that he was editing a series for the University of Nebraska Press on the history of spaceflight, and the author who had originally signed up to write the Skylab volume had just dropped out. Maybe we would be willing to turn the memoir into a Skylab history?

If we were interested, Colin said, we would have to submit a proposal, which he said he would be happy to help us write. They would then review the proposal they helped us write, and, assuming it was acceptable, we’d be given a contract. The offer had appeal. Everything I had started trying to figure out about how to get published just got resolved. We decided to do it. We even wrote the proposal all by ourselves, figuring if we couldn’t write a proposal without help, we probably didn’t need to be undertaking to write a book. It was accepted; we had a contract.

Joe Kerwin joined us later; when we went to interview him for the book he mentioned that he had also been interested in writing one, so we decided to form a super-team-up for “Homesteading.” I’ll note that Owen and Joe did an incredible amount of work on the book; people have assumed that in a partnership like this the writer does the writing and the astronauts lend their names and stories, but they both actually wrote large portions of the book. And a huge amount of credit also goes to Ed Gibson from the third crew of Skylab, who, through not listed as an author, also made incredible contributions to the finished product, both in the coverage of his mission and in the science chapter.

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of “Homesteading Space”

Bold They Rise” came about similarly. Toward the end of “Homesteading,” Colin asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write one of the series’ two shuttle books. The conversation took place at just the right moment — I was far enough out of doing the real heavy lifting for Homesteading that the intimidation of the work was a little removed, but publication was imminent enough that there was a lot of excitement. So, yes, I know someone — me. The proposal process got extended when an astronaut co-author was briefly attached, and then unattached, from the project, but other than that, it worked in much the same way.

“Homesteading” took about four years from inception through publication; “Bold They Rise” about twice that long, though much more sporadically with more stops and starts. “Homesteading,” co-authored with a couple of astronauts who opened some amazing doors for me, was much more fun to work on. I’m proud of being able to tell the undertold story of Skylab and preserving it for history; but I’ve had a more personal relationship with the shuttle and so I was honored to be able to write that love letter to the program. I think the shorter “Bold They Rise” is a little more accessible, but I also think that “Homesteading” has some really great nuggets that make it worth the read.

In both cases, we completed the manuscript and sent it to the publisher. It goes through a peer review, in which other authors tell the publisher whether they think the manuscript should be published, would be publishable with some work, or shouldn’t be published. “Homesteading” was the former; “Bold They Rise” came back as the second, and, honestly, is a much better book for it. I was perhaps too humble in undertaking BTR; I wanted it to be a whole lot of the voices of the astronauts and very little of mine. Which sounds noble, but the book suffered from the lack of a stronger narrative. The current draft goes much further in fixing that than what we originally submitted. In the case of “Homesteading,” which received a stronger Go from the peer review, there were still some recommended changes, and those were made.

The manuscripts were resubmitted, and went through an edit from a proof-reader hired by the publisher. The manuscript comes back, you make the edits, and send it back. This is the last time your book is yours to do with as you please. It comes back to you one final time, in the form of page proofs, in which it’s laid out the way it will look in print. You make one final look through, just to make sure there are no glaring errors, but unless there is something huge (and at this point there shouldn’t be), you can’t make minor tweaks but you can’t make any changes that would move even one word from one page to another. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had as a writer, having to reread my work but not being able to change it. Reading from this vantage point of having my hands tied, I kept second-guessing myself. The same sentences which I’d loved the last time I read the book now seemed like they could be oh so much better if only I were allowed to change them. (Now that the book is published, they’ve gone back to being just fine again, thankfully.) This was particularly true of the beginning of “Homesteading,” which during that reading felt like I had been trying way too hard to ‘write a book.’ ‘Oh, look at me, I’m such a serious writer,’ 11-years-ago me apparently thought, according to 7-years-ago me. (Me today suspects 11-year-ago me probably really was trying too hard, but that 7-year-ago me may have been a little high on his horse in judging him.)

A big envelope full of

A big envelope full of “Bold They Rise”

The manuscript was mailed back one final time, and the next time I saw it was in the form of a box of printed books on my doorstep. Which, for the record, is a very nice feeling. Someone gave me the advice, which I followed, of signing your first copy for yourself; those two volumes sit in my living room. (I also have “yearbook copies” of each book, in which I get signatures from the people who helped me work on them or who are discussed in the book.)

People ask about royalties, and I’ll just say this is not something you do for the money. For a while, I probably spent more working on “Homesteading” than I made out of it, though that may no longer be true. Part of that comes from working with an academic press, which has its pros and cons. A commercial publisher might have provided more marketing assistance and helped us have more mainstream success, but part of that help most likely would have been in the form of a loss of control. In writing “Homesteading,” a huge motivator for us was preserving the story for history, and so we were grateful for a publisher that gave us the freedom to tell as much of the story as we wanted.

So that’s my story. Like I said, I think the best piece of advice in there is one I didn’t use, so take it all for what it’s worth.


Beyond that:

• Connections are good. Make them. Use them.

• The best way to write a book is to write a book. It will never be easy. You’ll never have time. The way you do it is this: You type one word. And then you type another word after that. And another word after that. Until there are no more words your story needs. The more time passes between the words, the longer the process will take, but as long as you keep doing it, it will get done. If you wait for the day you have all the time to write all the words, odds are it won’t.

• Write a book because it’s a book you want to write. If you have enough passion to pursue it, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

• I work best with accountability. It’s why I had co-authors on both books; it’s much easier for me to get things done when there’s someone I’m responsible to working with me. I’m not saying you’re the same, I’m saying that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Know both, play to your strengths, compensate for your weaknesses.

The other common question: It’s entirely possible I’ll write another one, but not today. Work keeps me very busy, and my free time goes to improv and history work and freelance writing and Huntsville blogging and being a newlywed husband. Those aren’t an excuse — if I were passionate about writing a book, I would type words around those things. But right, those things are where my passion lies, and a book today would detract from those things. There is an idea I want to write eventually that’s different from my first two, but it’s still boiling in the back of my head. I’d like to write fiction, but I’m not going to start typing until I have an idea that compels me. I’ve had a couple of conversations about collaborating on a project, and for the right project and person, I’m alway open to that.

And, of course, someday the rocket I’m helping to build will need its story told. Part of me would be content letting someone else tell it. But part of me would like to at least be involved in the telling…

Europa and Eupora


This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.

This Is 40

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

If the measure of a birthday is how cool you would have thought it was as a kid, then today’s a pretty good day.

When I was a kid, it was a big deal to go to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for your birthday.

I can’t imagine how awesome kid me would have thought the idea was of spending your birthday, not at the NASA museum, but at NASA, writing stories about astronauts living in space for a year and about private companies building their own spaceships and about using the biggest rocket ever to send people to Mars.

Nothing against my current record cool-childhood-birthday, where my mom made astronaut costumes for all the kids, including milk jug helmets, but today would have at least been competitive, awesomeness-wise.

So this is 40.

Honestly, I still feel like I’m trying to get a hold of this adult thing, but I have mastered the heck out of being six.

The question I’m always worst at in job interviews is the one asked sometimes about where you see yourself in five years. I’ve found that, when it comes to such things, God is far more creative than I.

40 doesn’t look like I necessarily would have thought it would for big chunks of my life.

David Hitt in 2005 with picture of David Hitt in 1993

Me on my birthday 10 years ago, with me from 22 years ago.

When I was 25, I still thought success at 40 would mean being the publisher of a weekly newspaper somewhere in Mississippi. NASA wasn’t on my radar. Thankfully I’ve aged better than the newspaper industry has.

If I’d been asked that question five years ago, I would not have begun to imagine the life I have today.

I happened across the blog post I wrote on my birthday five years ago. Five years ago, I was comfortable. Five years ago, I had no clue that my world was about to completely fall apart. In less than a year from that birthday, I would be out of work and out of another engagement. Honestly, it sucked.

I’m blessed that it happened.

It’s hard to imagine a job better suited for me than the one I have now. I never would have left the job I had five years ago. If this job had come available while I was working that one, I would have missed out on one of the most amazing opportunities I’ve ever been given.

And, yeah, it’s hard to imagine a friend, partner and wife better suited for me than Rebecca.

When I had nothing, I found everything. Those months I spent working part-time for minimum wage at the Huntsville Historic Depot have caused me to fall in love with my city in a way I never had before, and opened opportunities for me to give back to Huntsville in awesome ways. I have an amazing wife, an amazing job, great friends, great hobbies, and a dog who blogs.

Me in a spacesuit

Me, a couple of months before my 35th birthday. The past five years have brought about a lot more gray hair, but other things never change.

I had lunch yesterday with a friend of mine, who started at NASA a month ago, and we laughed about our similar stories of how we ended up where we are in completely unlikely ways. If I had to give honest advice for someone wanting to know how to get to where I am, based on my experience, it would have to be — “Make mistakes. Have bad things happen. But never ever ever give up.” This thing we call “luck” is just being ready when opportunity occurs.

If that next year was awful after my 35th birthday was bad, this past year has been incredible.

I got married. I saw Orion launch. I made my first — and second — trips overseas. My newest niece was born the day after my birthday. I saw the sun rise over the Atlantic and I saw it set on the Pacific. Not a bad year to celebrate today.

People have given me a hard time about my upcoming 40th, and I’ve replied that I’m looking forward to it — joking that for the next 11 months, I’ll be a guy in his 40s married to a woman in her 20s. I’m living the dream.

To be sure, I make it sound better than it is. In this post, and every day. I share the awesome things more than the lackluster. The successes more than the struggles. This past month has been the first full month in over three years that I’ve had reliable air-conditioning at home. I’ve spent the past two years converting money into fat at a prodigious rate. Rebecca and I get the typical newlywed questions about kids, and the question is daunting. I rue decisions over the last 40 years that led to that point. But life, is, ultimately, life, for all of us.

But, ultimately, I’m crazy blessed. And so very grateful. Grateful to the Author of it all, to my ever-patient Rebecca, and to the friends who have been part of the story over this past year, and the past 40. Thank you for making it interesting.

So, yeah, this is 40. Rockets and Rebecca and writing and roof repairs.

I can live with that.

Me and my dad, many years ago

Hey, kid! I did go to Ole Miss, and I get to play with rockets for a living. I hope you’d be pleased.

Meet the New (Deputy) Boss

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman with Marshall Center Direct Patrick Scheuermann

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman with Marshall Center Direct Patrick Scheuermann.

Marshall Space Flight Center got our first official visit today from NASA’s new Deputy Administrator, Dava Newman, and I have to say it was a very encouraging visit. During her all-hands address to the center team this morning, I got to ask her a question; she had done a good overview of the agency-wide big picture of what her job entails, but I was curious what was the one thing for her personally that if she accomplished at NASA, she would consider her tenure a success.

“My long-term goal is boots on Mars. That’s going to be my focus here.”

Have I mentioned lately what an exciting time this is to be a part of this agency?

In general, she was impressive. Very obviously passionate about the work of NASA, and, when she talked about her personal labor of love, a revolutionary spacesuit design, very obviously extremely technically capable. And, as a former MIT professor, very passionate about education and inspiring the next generation of explorers.

She went on to talk about her excitement for the planned mission to explore Europa, and to say that one of her goals is to help better articulate our plans for the Journey to Mars. Again, also things I approve of.

Plus, the new deputy administrator of NASA also said this: “I love surprises. I didn’t realize how much improv is part of this job.” Which pretty much immediately puts her high on my list of favorite NASA officials ever.

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Rome

roman ruins

Rome, reportedly, is on the verge of collapse.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and thousands of years later, the city of 2.8 million remains home to some of the world’s most remarkable fountains, museums, and churches. But it’s also “dirty and disorganized,” reports Reuters. Untamed grass and graffiti can be spotted on city streets and buildings, while a rat infestation reportedly plagues the city center. A bed and breakfast owner says some of the city’s 10.61 million tourists last year complained “the metros never arrive on time, the stations are full of pickpockets, the streets are full of rubbish,” she says. “Instead of getting better, the situation is getting worse.” In fact, the city “is on the verge of collapse,” says the Chamber of Commerce president. “It is unacceptable that a major city which calls itself developed can find itself in such a state of decay.”

But the best example of disorder is perhaps Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the largest in Italy, which has been partially closed since a fire May 7.

Rebecca and I visiting Rome on our honeymoon was serendipity. I wanted to take her to London, her “anywhere in the world” choice and a passion from her history studies. The travel site helpfully informed us we could stay a day longer and still come out cheaper if we split the trip between London and Rome. Well, OK, if we must, we must.

To be sure, Rome very much fit in with the theme of the trip. While there were many places we were excited about see in London, for Rebecca, there was no question about what was the top of the list: the Tower of London. There was incredible appeal to the idea of being where so much history had unfolded, of walking halls walked by people she had read about time and time and time again, of seeing the things they had seen.

Rebecca and I met working at a history museum; for Huntsville, a relatively old building. Dating back 150 years. The Tower of London dates back 1,000 years. History.

So for me, there was immense appeal to the idea of taking Rebecca to London, letting her walk through a building a thousand years old, and then flying to a city that was older than that when the first stone of the tower was laid. To begin the trip seeing ancient history, and then to see history that was already ancient long before the first place was new.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I've long known what the Coliseum looks like; I've seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I’ve long known what the Coliseum looks like; I’ve seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

I was captivated by the idea of it. I was curious what it would be like to go to a contemporary city building on foundations thousands of years old. Not just to see ruins, but to see modern life among the history.

I left with no answer to that, really. I saw a lot of history in Rome. Amazing, humbling amounts of history. And I saw the modern metropolis built on that foundation. But it wasn’t just a city that was thousands of years old.

It was Rome.

Walking through the city, the legacy upon which it is built is inescapable. But it’s not just a legacy of long history, it’s a legacy of greatness. Of empire. Of primacy.

You see the ruins of the greatness of ancient Rome, and you see the relics of attempts, time and time again, to recapture that greatness, to restore that glory. From emperors to popes to fascists, the way to show you should be taken seriously is to reflect, restore, recreate its history, to call back to a time when all of western civilization took Rome seriously. The city is an endless cycle, on centuries-long centers, of using the past to show strength in the present. Of attempting to claim the destiny of The Eternal City.

An endless cycle of Rome striving to be, once again, Rome.

My experience there in March was not as bad as that article describes, but it did seem a city on the low side of that cycle. Still beautiful, still exotic, still a feast for the senses. But a bit more relaxed than ambitious, with more inertia and drive. I readily acknowledge we were in more touristy areas, and were there mainly on the weekend, but the main industry I saw was the selling of selfie sticks. (Or, in the rain, umbrellas. I’m convinced that if I were to invent an umbrella that converted to a selfie stick, I could own that city.)

But there was also a sense it didn’t matter. Time in Rome means a different thing. Rome may be complacent today, but in 50 years, or a century or two, it will be glorious again. A long time to you or me, but a blink of the eye to Rome.

Perhaps Rome is on the verge of collapse. Rome has collapsed before. Rome will collapse again.

And, in between, other cities come and go.

Rome remains.



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