The only copy they had left of The Right Stuff at the library was in large print. I asked the librarian if he thought that'd be a problem.
He looked at me dimly.
"Many people find larger print makes reading easier."
"Many old people, you mean," hoping a little joke might ease the obvious tension that exists between the help desk and the library patron who bends pages of books and chews on spines and in general shows a disregard for the sacred space that is a public library.
"Oh, and I suppose age has been kind to your eyes!" he said.
I was pretty sure I could one-up him in the eye problem department, but I didn't want to get into the astigmatism of it all with him. We were still strangers, after all.
So I nodded, and took the call number and navigated my way through the stacks until I found the book I was looking for.
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, first published in 1979. I'd been interested in reading it since a recent trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Open House had picked my interest in the magnificent universe, and also because it was a cultural touchstone. And I had been meaning to catch up on my cultural touchstones.
In the time since I left my full-time job until this moment, I had been meaning to catch up on a lot. Like, reading the classics. My self-imposed sabbatical at the age of 25 was supposed to serve my soul. I'd read everything from Thoreau to Didion, and I'd have a new grasp on the world. But months had gone by, my bank account had dwindled, and a stack of books sat on my nightstand collecting dust and cereal snack bars.
But this old book, this old copy of this book, it fascinated me. The print was probably twice as large as I usually read, reminding me of all the mysteries that sit in abandoned piles in my Grandma's retirement home.
But the heroes in this American story weren't the sly sexually adventurous detectives of Alexander McCall Smith or Nora Roberts. No, here was the story of true pioneers, only they didn't really think of themselves that way. They did things out of some internal code, because they were brave or internally competitive, not because they could then post it to their Facebook. They just told Pancho -- the proprietor of Pancho's bar -- and that was enough.
There was some kind of grit inside of them that literally drove them to the moon. I was impressed, seeing as sometimes I don't even have the nerve to turn off the hall-light once I'm settled in bed.
I wonder about these men, and I know the same kind of bravery and determination exists still today. I know that because I've seen movies and read about journalists and marines and even politicians who seem duty-bound by some higher calling than self-promotion.
But when people talk in generalities about young people, the overriding sense is that we're a self-involved nomadic troupe, who mooch off of our parents but dream of being more important than everyone who came before us. "Millenials are Way too Immature at the Office," writes Business Insider. We are the "Boomerang" or "Peter Pan" generation, never bothering to grow up, says Wikipedia. Millennials may not go for new "boneless chicken" at KFC, according to fast food industry analysts.
It would be easy to compare us unfavorably to the generations that came before. All of the hard work of our ancestors -- the immigrants who sailed across the pacific, the first and second generations who went to school on the GI Bill, the first Jewish dentists and Catholic presidents -- has endowed us with ample opportunity. My grandfather sold pints of his own blood to pay his way through medical school. Now, his grandkids bemoan how hard O-Chem is and how instead of a respectable profession like medicine, they're going to be writers. They need personal computers and iPads and other electronic accoutrements in order to pursue this so called profession.
I wonder if we're just not composed like the ones that came before us. If instead, we're made of the wrong stuff? If the stuff inside of us is flimsy, or too sensitive, self-doubting, if we have inner constitution of cotton candy.
When I get interviewed, and my potential future employer looks at me seriously and asks, "What are your goals," I don't exactly inspire the confidence that Alan Shepard and John Glenn did. The truth is, my aspirations are things like, "To not cry for seven days!" or "To bike the length of the C & O Canal with my brood of children, one day" both of which are intangible, perhaps silly dreams.
In situations where my strength is tested -- like heavy traffic on the 405 or geometry problems on the GRE -- I all too often crumble and complain. If Stephen swims x meters due south and then turns east, and ends up y miles from the boat, I don't want to imagine how a right triangle might solve this problem. And frankly, I think the syllables in the word hypotenuse would be better spent in a poem about how miserable standardized tests are.
We certainly buck against the norm of things. I think we wonder why, sometimes more than we ask how. And this resistance to doing things people expect us to -- like finding a job, going to business school -- it can make us seem lazy and apathetic. Like we're not equipped with the stuff it takes to succeed.
But maybe being so differently composed, maybe it isn't always negative and doesn't necessarily doom us to failure. Perhaps it can mean that we're imagining better and different stuff for the world. Maybe having the right stuff isn't as important as having imaginative stuff and creative stuff and un-categorizable stuff.
And anyways, who's to say that the next frontier -- the one past the moon and Mars and wherever else those Apollo shuttles went -- won't require our particular post-grad sensibility? Who knows? Maybe they'll need bloggers on Planet X.