Coming Home


I’ve come home.

A few weeks ago, I accepted a new job, returning to my old stomping grounds — after being gone for more than a year and a half, I am once more working as a contractor at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

It’s good to be back.

I’m here in a new capacity, and one that I am extremely excited about. During the nine years I was here originally, I supported NASA Education, primarily as a writer for the NASA homepage. In my new job, I’m working in communications, supporting the new Space Launch System, an in-development rocket that will eventually out-power even the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. It’s an incredible honor to be involved in the project; as much as I enjoyed working in education, it’s a very different sort of experience to be in a position where I’m playing a substantive role supporting the development of a new launch vehicle that will make possible the future of space exploration. I am, in a very real way, working to send human beings into the solar system, and that is more than a little unbelievable.

As I’m writing this, a bit in advance of publishing, I’m in the latter parts of the process of getting settled back in — getting various accounts re-activated, getting a new computer, and, ultimately, getting my new badge. As one thing after another is gradually restored, the feeling of coming home just gets stronger.

The new assignment means I’m working with a new team. There are many familiar faces I’ve encountered during my time here (including someone I went to kindergarten with), combined with several new faces. It’s a great team, and I love working with them. From my first interview, I just really enjoyed talking to these people, especially when I found myself lapsing back into a rarified dialect I’d not used in months. These people speak my language.

I’m quite excited to be starting this grand new adventure.

Cottage Industry

20121224-154038.jpgLooking back, my disappearance from blogging also syncs up roughly with starting a full-time job this summer. Since the job was only starting as a temporary contract position, and I didn’t want people to stop helping me look for something permanent, I didn’t say a whole lot about it publicly until things settled down somewhat. I guess now that I’ve left, it’s about as settled down as it’s going to get, so I can catch up a little bit.

Back in early July, I started working as a marketing communications specialist for Cottage Senior Living, which operates 10 assisted living facilities in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, along with The Commons, Huntsville’s first 55+ Active Adult Community.

It was, to put it mildly, an interesting experience. I don’t know that my career has ever taken me into a world quite so unknown to me, and the family that founded CSL were early pioneers in the area of senior living, so I had a unique opportunity to learn about that domain from someone who was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about it, and who had a singular vision.

But, to be honest, one of the things I loved most about the job was the toys. During my original interview, they wanted me to demonstrate my design and layout abilities, so they had me put together a quick dummy newspaper ad. It was the first time I’d played with print design tools in years, and the first time I’d done newspaper-style design in over a decade. I probably worked a little longer and harder on it than I needed to simply because I was having so much fun. And when I was hired, designing for newspapers was a regular part of the job. It was a really great experience to get to go back and use skills that I’d not dusted off in 10 years one more time, and to be applying them in new ways. And newspaper ads were only a fraction of it — I got to script radio ads and help plan a video, among other projects. It was very special to me that, on the last day I worked there, I had my design work published in The Huntsville Times, where I started my professional career, for the first time in 20 years. That was just neat.

I also particularly enjoyed my work promoting The Commons. As a new project, there was a good bit of room for some creativity in planning an advertising campaign, and, when I pitched my concepts, I have never felt more like Darren Stevens on “Bewitched.” The Commons team was great folks, and I really liked working with them.

Merry Christmas to All of You on the Good Earth

We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.

Merry Christmas to you all! I hope you and yours have a joyous holiday!

Another Draft Done

20121219-122830.jpgThis is one of those things that I included in the “when I start blogging again, I should blog about this” list, but I have no idea what I intended to say about it.

During the time I was offline, we finished another draft of the space shuttle book, “Bold They Rise,” that I’ve been working on for, what, six, seven years now? In fact, getting the book finished was one of the motivators for taking a break from blogging in the first place.

That said, there’s really not a whole lot to say about the latest milestone, other than the fact that writing a book can be a long, complicated process.

The latest revision mainly makes some stylistic changes to the book, changing the way it reads somewhat, and I think we all agree that it makes it much better. Next it goes to peer reviewers and the editorial board to see whether they concur, and then it comes back to us at least another time or two to make more revisions to make it publication-worthy. If all goes well, we’ll be looking at a spring 2014 publication date.

Still, even if the latest submission is just another milestone in a long string of them, a lot of work went into this one, and it was quite a relief to have the book off my plate for a little while.

I Believe I Can Fly

20121217-221902.jpg When I boarded the airplane, it had been about a year since I’d taken off in a plane, and about two and a half since I’d landed in one.

After skydiving last year, and having floated in a plane on a reduced gravity flight, it seemed like the next logical item for the bucket list would be flying one. I’d started keeping an eye open for opportunities, and when I saw a great deal on LivingSocial for an hour-long flight lesson, I jumped on it.

The company I flew through was Genesis Flight Services in Albertville, Ala. (And, for the record, I highly recommend them.) I was surprised at just how hands-on the lesson was; I figured I would actually fly probably half of that hour, once we were safely in the air and before we began the process of landing. The reality was, I had my hands on the stick during take-off, and flew the approach for landing. And, as a bonus, the instructor let Rebecca ride in the back seat for free. (Huge kudos to her; despite only having flown a couple of times, and not in years, she didn’t hesitate for a second hopping in the small plane with someone who’d never piloted before at the stick.)

Once we got in the air, I was amazed how well we could see the towers of the nuclear power plant near Scottsboro. The pilot said that he thought maybe some buildings in the distance were Huntsville. I decided to find out. It was hard to tell from that distance, but there was one building that, if he were in fact right about it being Huntsville, I was fairly sure I recognized, so I pointed the nose toward it and headed that way.

Flying the plane was much easier than I’d imagined. I had some experience with flight simulators, and it was amazing how much easier the real thing was. The reality of actually seeing the ground and sky around me and of feeling the results of what I was doing it made a huge difference. (Though I was horribly bad about climbing without realizing it.)

I flew toward the building and realized that it was, indeed, what I thought it was — the dynamic test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’d never been able to show Rebecca Marshall, so, obviously avoiding army airspace, I flew alongside the Arsenal and into the Hampton Cove area. We could see the Saturn V as we were approaching, but finally had to turn back to make sure we’d have enough time for the return to Albertville airport.

We had a little extra time, so we played around with slow flight and steep turns, and, with a bit of guidance, I flew the plane back in for the approach to landing. Nerd that I am, though I don’t know when I’ll ever get to do it again, I went ahead and bought a pilot’s log book to record my one hour of flight time.

Given the opportunity, though, I’d love to do it again.

Song Challenge Week 15 — A Song That Describes You

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 15 — A Song That Describes You

“Alan Bean,” Hefner

So of course I read this prompt and my ego points out that no one song can define me. And, you know, my ego is totally right about that one.

I could pick a handful of songs that seem very “me” to me, but one in particular stands out as being sort of integral to my personal mission.

Hefner’s “Alan Bean” resonates for a few reasons. First, I like the fact that it’s about Alan Bean, the moonwalker with whom I have the most personal connection, and an all-around neat guy.

The bit about not giving up is encouraging, and the part about being changed by someone else’s prayer strikes a personal chord also.

But the thing about the song that I feel most describes me:

“And what you didn’t see
I’ll let you see through me.
I’m going to paint the moon for you.”

I’ve never been to the moon. Or to Skylab.

And I can’t paint.

But I’ve been blessed, very blessed, to get to see those things in a way most people don’t. And if I can’t paint, I can still tell a story. And because of that, I feel an obligation to share those things I’ve seen, to tell stories to let people see them in a way they otherwise couldn’t. And not just the moon, but Mississippi tornado recovery and Civil War invasions and falling out of airplanes and more.

And that’s a two-fold mandate. I feel the need to share the things I see so other people can see them, and also to see as much as I can so I can share it.

At the end of the day, I want to have lived a good story.

Dead Man Talking

20121214-065702.jpgAnd then there was the time I dressed up as a dead man and hung out in the cemetery.

Someday, there’s going to be a post about how the last year and a half or so have changed me, and this post relates to one of those ways. My writing and acting backgrounds have merged into a new skillset, and I had a neat opportunity to put it to good use a little while back.

I met the awesome Jacque Reeves, who has an incredible knack for breathing life into Huntsville history, through the Depot earlier in the year, and mentioned that if she ever needed help with any of the fun things she does, I’d love to come play. That chance came a few weeks ago when I was invited to participate in the annual Cemetery Stroll at Maple Hill Cemetery.

In the Stroll, local folks dress up as historical characters buried in Maple Hill, stand by their graves, and tell their stories to visitors. The event continues to expand each year to the point where it’s now almost impossible to hear all of the stories, which keeps it fresh for repeat visitors.

I was called in as a last-minute replacement to portray Thomas Bibb, the second governor of Alabama. My museum connections helped my lay hands on some rather dapper period attire, and I rather misguidedly shaved my full beard off in favor of muttonchoppy sideburns. (I was apparently the only guy to sacrifice facial hair for his character, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.)

The last-minuteness of it added an element of challenge; I was provided a couple of sheets of information about Bibb, which I supplemented with a bit of my own research, but then had only a few days to make it my own and be ready to perform it. I found myself wishing it had been this easy to learn history when I was in school; it’s far more interesting when you take a narrative approach instead of a raw data-dump angle.

Bibb was an interesting guy. His family played a huge role in the formation of Alabama as a state, and he became governor when his brother, the first governor, was thrown from a horse and killed. He served out the remainder of the term, and decided he’d had enough. Of course, for all his accomplishments, the fact that capture more people’s attention was that, after he died in New Orleans, he was shipped back home in a barrel full of whiskey; a testament to his stature.

It was a great honor to get asked to participate this year, and I look forward to giving another lifeless performance next year!

Mud And Magnolias

20121209-154444.jpgWay back when, before I disappeared from the blog, I wrote a post about doing some reporting. It was still early on, so I didn’t mention yet what I was writing about or who I was writing for. Particularly since who I was writing for only sort of existed at that point.

Back in May, I was passing through Mississippi, and had lunch with my good friend Shannon Johnson, who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some freelance writing. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, for which she works, was going to be launching a new magazine, and they needed some contributors.

When I said I’d be interested, I had no idea just how much fun it was going to be.

During the time I’ve been offline, the magazine has gone from not-yet-published to having three issues out, so I can discuss it a bit more freely now.

Mud & Magnolias is a lifestyle magazine covering northeast Mississippi, and, in my completely unbiased view, is great reading.

For the first issue, I wrote the article I talked about in my early blog post, a feature about the rebuilding of Smithville, Miss., which was devastated last year during the April tornadoes. It was the first real journalistic writing I’d done in a decade, and putting that hat back on was quite agreeable. And, then, actually seeing the final product — this old newspaper hand has to admit that the magazine folks made my words look darned good. The M&M staff does an incredible job each month putting together a beautiful package.

My second feature, for the next issue, was about Tishomingo State Park. Research for that article involved doing a good bit of hiking, which isn’t a bad thing to get paid for at all, really.

My third story, for the current issue, is about a Christmas light display in Cotton Plant, Mississippi. You should check out both the magazine and the display.

I’m currently working on my fourth article. To be honest, it’s a bit more difficult this time due to the confluence of having a hard time getting responses from the subject and my own increased business, but, even so, I have no desire to stop. I’m incredibly flattered to be both a charter and regular contributor to the magazine, and I want to keep my run going as long as I can.

And to think I believed, after 10 years away, that my Mississippi journalism days were behind me.

Communicating With Santa

20121209-153905.jpgWhen I was contacted about helping out, I was told a list of the duties I’d be performing.

I knew that, well, of course I was going to do it when the list got to “Communicating With Santa Claus.” ‘Cause how do you NOT do that?

As an offshoot of my work with the EarlyWorks Family of Museums (including the Huntsville Historic Depot) over the last year or so, I’m working this month as a manager on duty of Santa’s Village at Alabama Constitution Village in downtown Huntsville.

If you’ve not brought your kids before, you should — kids get to decorate cookies, write letters to Santa, hear stories from Mrs. Claus, see live reindeers, and, of course, sit on Santa’s lap and have their picture made. With the music and snow machines, it’s delightfully Christmas-y, and I’m generally fairly Grinchy about holiday stuff. Tickets are only $5 each, and it’s well worth it.

I’ve been having a great time working it. The staff is wonderful, which makes my job easy, so I basically get to walk around and see kids and parents having a great time.

And, on the really great nights, I manage to convince the blacksmith he should take a break, and I go in and make some nails.

The Science Of Improv


Back in the good old days when I was blogging regularly, I wrote from time to time about Face2Face Improv, the live comedy troupe of which I was a member.

Back in early July, Face2Face had its last show.

A few days after F2F’s 10th anniversary(!) show, artistic director Gene Banks announced that he was shutting down the troupe. Since it was an official business wholly owned by Gene, the Face2Face Improv troupe ceased to exist.

Several of us, however, weren’t quite ready to be done.

And thus, Comic Science Improv was born.

Comic Science performs shows in a similar vein to Face2Face — short, games-based improv scenes based on audience suggestions, much like the old Who’s Line Is It Anyway show on ABC. Performances are appropriate, and entertaining, for all audiences. The core of the troupe consists of Face2Face veterans, but new faces are already making their way into shows.

I’m serving as the first director of the new troupe, and I am so incredibly proud of the work that everyone has been doing. We’ve launched several new games, performed at a new venue, and everyone is really bringing new things in their performances. We’re working to get the word out — We have a Facebook page, a and a Pinterest account, and are working to get a web page online. We were also featured recently in The Huntsville Times and, which was pretty cool.

So, point being, you should come see us perform. We’ll be at the following venues in the next month or so. More details can be found on the Facebook page:

— Acting Up Academy on Whitesburg Drive on Saturday, December 8, at 7 p.m.

— The Tinsel Trail at Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville on December 15.

— Santa’s Village in downtown Huntsville on December 23rd.

— Acting Up Academy on Whitesburg Drive on Saturday, January 5.

(Also, we may be auditioning for a television show soon, but if that happens, it’ll merit its own post.)

Come check us out! We hope to see you soon!