Sins As Scarlett

Rhett and Scarlett

Rhett and Scarlett

I was talking last night to a friend who was watching Gone With The Wind (on Blu-Ray, I might add, making me a little jealous). And the conversation turned to the emulatability of the main characters.

My friend said that, when she was younger, she wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara. And, you know, she probably wasn’t alone in that regard. At first blush, Scarlett is perfect — beautiful, vivacious, independent, strong. The boys flock around her, hoping to win her favor. Men want to be with her, women want to be her.

And, yet, ultimately, she’s a tragic figure, a victim of nothing but herself. For all of those things she has going for her, she’s ultimately self-destructive. She’s hung up on what she doesn’t have, and doesn’t appreciate what she does. She uses people to fill a void in her life, to make her feel better about herself, but isn’t willing or able to truly love in return. She takes advantage of them, robbing herself of what she could have in the process. She has Rhett, and, in him, what she needs, and happiness, but she won’t let herself see it. To paraphrase a movie out now, she won’t learn to love what she needs.

And, at the end, she pays the price for her own blindness.

I made the comment to my friend that Scarlett, ultimately, is too far gone for redemption. And that, ultimately, Rhett Butler is too good for redemption.

If my friend wanted to be Scarlett, then I wanted to be Rhett. Debonair, dashing, devil-may-care. The easy, confident charm.

I was sharing something with a friend that I had seen over the weekend written about Florida coach Urban Meyer: “There is a charm that Meyer displays in public. However … Meyer is “a bundle of contradictions — at times unaffected and warm, at times calculating and smug, at times all of the above.” Without me having to say anything, my friend was amused — let’s just say that, perhaps, at diffferent times, different people might have said some of the same about me, with varying degrees of complimentariness. But, you know, you could pretty much apply all of that to Rhett Butler, and he carries it off in such a way that they are all assets. And, yeah, I wouldn’t mind having a bit of that myself.

But just as Scarlett is the victim of herself, so, too, is Rhett. Not, ultimately of her, but of himself. He’s too good for redemption, too loyal; he goes down with the sinking ship. He knows Scarlett; he knows what she is. He hopes she’ll change, learn, grow, mature, but knows he’s taking the risk that ultimately, she won’t. And, unfortunately, ultimately, she doesn’t.

My friend commented that Rhett shouldn’t have gone off to war. But he had to — Rhett Butler, for all his devil-may-careness, has to fight for the Lost Cause.

I thought that, knowing the end of the story, my friend was a bit silly for idealizing Scarlett. But, arguably, you could say the same of me wanting to be Rhett Butler.

The couple of sequels that have been written bring them back together. And there is an appeal to that — it’s a romantic notion, and, in a way, it’s “right.” They do belong together, certainly. But is it real?

What do you think? What happens after the last page, after the credits roll? What is the ultimate fate of Rhett Butler and Katie Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler?

One Step Closer

Last week, for the first time, I wrote about the space shuttle in the past tense.

It was a weird, and somewhat sad, experience.

I’ve known for, what, almost six years now that the end of the shuttle was coming. When Bush II announced the Vision for Space Exploration, the clock began ticking toward the retirement of the shuttle. But, back then, it was the distant future. I knew it was coming, but it wasn’t real.

Now, however, there are increasingly more and more little reminders that this is actually going to happen, imminently. During the last shuttle last, the commentator noted that this was the penultimate flight of Atlantis. As I wrote recently, when I saw her in orbit after undocking from the station, it occurred to me that, depending on whether and ground track of her next flight, that might be the last time I get to see Atlantis. (Particularly sad after our close relationship this year.)

Last week was another milestone. Part of my job is to write Student Topic features — essentially encyclopedia-entry type articles about NASA topics for elementary and middle school kids. It’s a lot of fun, and one of my favorite things I get to do. (OK, full disclosure: I’m a bit biased, since it was my idea.) Most of what we write is more timely, along the lines of newspaper or magazine articles.

Since the Topics, on the other hand, are intended to be read years down the road, we’ve had to start writing them with that in mind. Last week, for example, I wrote one about orbit. Not that long ago, I would have explained in the article how the space shuttle orbits Earth. Now, on the other hand, I use the International Space Station instead. Since the station’s up there right now, it’s timely today, but will also be timely two years from now.

On the next topic I started working on, however, I ran into a problem. I was writing about orbital debris, working from an old feature my team had written years ago. And it turns out, to write about orbital debris, you pretty much have to write about the space shuttle. There’s a fair bit of large orbital debris that can be counted and tracked using ground- and space-based observational assets. But there’s a good bit of it that’s too small to see. And, basically, the way we have any idea how much of that stuff is out there is by counting how many pieces of it hit the shuttle while it was in orbit, and then figuring out how much volume of space the shuttle flew through during it’s mission. From there, you extrapolate the debris-per-volume ratio out to encompass orbital space, and you have a working estimate. Cool, huh?

But, incorporating this necessary information into the feature while still writing it in a way that wouldn’t be dated in a few years meant that I had to do something I hadn’t done before — write about the shuttle in past tense. Changing the feature from “When the shuttle returns from a mission, engineers count …” to “When the shuttle returned from a mission, engineers counted …:

And in that moment, the immenent end of the program became a little more real.

I had another interesting realization not that long ago while I was in Florida. At the KSC Visitors Center, they had a room with plaques for every shuttle mission. And looking at it, it occurred to me that, chronologically at least, I have now worked at NASA for a quarter of the shuttle program. The first flight was 28 years ago, in 1981, when I was five years old. I started working out here seven years ago, in 2002. It was weird to realize how much of the program I’d been here for, and also made its impending end a little more bittersweet.