I received a lovely card from fourth graders at the FACTS (Folk Arts – Cultural Treasures) Charter School in Philadelphia. Here are the lovely handwritten messages inside: Teacher Annie Huynh has had her class write to me for a couple of years now. They like reading Alvin Ho! And I will finally get to meet them this FRIDAY, October 17!!!!! Woohoooo!!! Wazoooo! Hooray!!!! Yipeeeee!!! I’m SOOO THRILLED, I can’t even tell you!!!! I’ll be visiting Miss Annie’s class in the afternoon and then doing an author presentation to the entire school. After that, I will be giving the keynote address at the school’s 10th anniversary fundraising dinner. Wow! TEN years!!! Congratulations, FACTS! Check out the details on their website here: http://www.factschool.org/ See you all very soon!!!! XXOOXOXO
The time has come to tell you of something very sad.
My dear father died two weeks ago.
His death was sudden and unexpected. He had just finished making dinner, complained of a headache to my mom, and within five minutes, lost consciousness forever. He had suffered a bleeding stroke, which is like a lightning strike in the brain. He was 83.
My family and I are still in shock. Lightning strikes in the brain don’t give any warning. My dad was active and vibrant and in good health. I had just spoken to him by phone a few days before. His oldest friend who came by his hospital bed (he was on life support until my daughters and I could fly across the country to say our goodbyes), said that my dad had just visited him the day before, and had brought over Asian pears from his garden.
My dad was like that. He always had a couple of fruit trees, tended them carefully year-round, and loved giving away the bounty. When I was little, he couldn’t wait for August when he could finally tell people to bring over their grocery bags to fill with plums. He’d even made a fruit picker by tying a clothes hanger to the end of a long bamboo rod to hook the “best sun-ripened” ones from the top of the tree. He really loved standing in the shade of that tree and looking up into its heavy, summer darkness. I know this because I was perched on the little wooden platform halfway up the tree, looking down. I saw my dad’s face open with wonder, bewilderment and absolute disbelief at his good luck. Year after year.
With my mom on a recent trip to China.My dad had taken me to his ancestral village in China, in 1998. You can read an excerpt from an essay that I wrote about the trip here, or you can find it in its entirety in Best American Essays 2001 (Houghton-Mifflin). My dad was the very end of the lion’s tail in the Chinese New Year lion dance in Seattle’s Chinatown in the 1950s.
When he wasn’t kung-fuing down King Street, he could make today’s A&F male models look like tufted sofas:And wasn’t he adorable standing in front of a jukebox?Feeding the ducks in Lake Washington was a life-long activity, but here, it looks like he was actually dipping his BARE FEET in the water. Something I’d never seen him do!
My dad at play:My dad doing tai chi:My dad ALWAYS bought Chevrolets. The only time he bought a different make of car, a Mercury, it was a complete and utter LEMON. Here he is with his latest Chevy. Note the super-duper hiking boots! And the pen in his breast pocket. He was never without a pen, or his watch.
Here is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral:
My dad was a very modest man and would likely consider a eulogy to be unnecessary and a form of bragging. So please allow me to address him in a personal letter:
When I was little, I had no idea what a brave man you were.
When you left your little village in southern China in 1949, you were 19. You had 100 Hong Kong dollars distributed in small sums among the pockets in your clothes and tucked into your socks. Later, bandits held up your bus and demanded all your money, and you pulled out ten dollars from a pocket and said that it was all you had. They believed you. You carried a drawstring bag that contained two extra shirts. It was all you owned. Your mother had not even packed you a lunch because, as you remembered it, “there was nothing left to eat.”
I loved your stories of survival as a little boy during the Second World War, when Japanese soldiers occupied your village. Your father and your yehyeh were living in Seattle. You were only seven. Every morning you and your mom and gningnin and younger brother would escape to the caves in the mountains. Every night you would come home after the soldiers had returned to their camp. They would take your chickens and your rice. But they couldn’t take your sense of adventure as you outsmarted the enemy troops. Your lives were in great peril, and your sense of wonder at the enemy planes that flew overhead must have driven your mother mad.
You not only survived enemy soldiers, but you also survived floods. When the Pearl River Delta flooded every spring, you were ready. You and your brothers took down the wooden doors of your house and used them as rafts. You would paddle around using your hands. Floods were such GREAT FUN, the way you told it. It never occurred to me that it was a dangerous event until I asked you a few years ago, “what was GninGnin and Lo Bak doing while you were paddling around?” You looked at me as though it should be obvious, and said, “They were saving the chickens and rice, of course, and screaming their heads off!”
As a young man in Seattle during the 1950s, you were brave to take a job as a dishwasher making $2 a day. You put yourself through school at Edison Technical College. You found a better job as a waiter. Then you bravely returned to Hong Kong in 1960 to marry my mom.
Marriage takes a lot of courage, but fatherhood takes even more. You became a dad three times during the 1960s. I don’t know what you were expecting, Dad, but ABCs are horrible children. We are not the nice respectful children that are born in China. We wear our shoes in the house. We speak English fast and Chinese slow, if at all. Our chopsticks don’t work. And our homework machines are not as good as the ones made in China. And did anyone ever tell you that when ABCs become teenagers all hell breaks lose?
Well, you braved it all, Dad. You screamed at us when we were bad, and you took us out for McDonald’s hamburgers when we were good. But whether we were good or bad, you went to work. You worked at Boeing as a mechanic until you got laid off in the 1970s. Then you worked as a cook in many different Chinese restaurants. You worked long hours. You worked swing-shifts. You stood at a hot stove all night long. I know you did this so that you could heat our home and feed us red meat, two things that you wouldn’t have had to do if we were living in the village. And eventually you did it to send me to college.
Thank you, Dad, for sending me to Princeton. It changed my life. You were very brave to let me go so far away.
You were very brave to try church. It is very different from anything you had ever known. You stayed away for many years while my friends picked me up Sunday mornings. You thought it was some strange club that required lots of money, which you didn’t have. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college that you gave it a try. Thank you for waiting, Dad, and for not giving away my tuition! Now I see that it has brought you many friends.
Thank you, Dad, for taking care of mom. She’s loved depending on you because you’re the type of man who is strong and brave and steadfast. She could depend on you no matter what. When mom faced some health challenges in recent years, you took her to every doctor’s appointment. You were the last person she saw going into surgery and the first person she saw when she came out. You were amazing, Dad. You really were. You had your own health issues, but I never heard about them until afterwards when you would say, “oh, BTW, i just got a stent put in,” as though you had just had your shoes repaired!
Thank you, Dad, for living so bravely and with a wealth of humor and grace. You always had a child’s sense of wonder, a tall tale to tell, or an astonishment to share. You laughed and you made us laugh. And the harder we laughed, the more embellishment you would give your stories.
While you made us laugh, nothing made you laugh more than being a grandpa. Thank you, Dad, for being a GREAT gunggung to Charity and Madison. You’ve given them so many wonderful memories of playing Chinese chess with you, going to Coulon Park, playing in the sand, getting clams from Ivars and you buying them anything that they even glanced at in the gift shops.
Thank you, Dad, also for taking me and the girls to many places in China, including your village, where you took down those doors when you were their age. They will never forget it.
None of us will ever forget you, Dad. You are a truly kind soul who gave SO much to everyone who came across your path. You lived a good life. You fought the good fight. You were brave and loyal and true. And now that I am still little, but old, I know just how lucky I am to be your daughter. Thank you, Dad, thank you for everything.
Your loving daughter,
Wah Neng Look, 1930-2014, my dad, my inspiration.
Just in time for summer reading. Perfect for schools with a China or Chinese curriculum (yes, I’m talking to you, Barrrington and South Barrington schools, and New York City public schools). Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about China but were afraid to ask :) ! Order yours today!
VANDENBERG AFB, CA — Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the launch of the OCO-2 satellite, and tweeting about it on Twitter. My young readers are not on Twitter, however, so I will recap the events for them here with some never-before seen photos of this top-secret military base (and hope that I don’t get busted!).
How to Launch a Rocket
1. Arrive at the top-secret south entrance at the pre-arranged hour. 2. Pretend you can’t read English as you step past this sign:3. Present two forms of government-issued I.D. for your security clearance:Which you must wear on your person at all times while on base.
4. Don’t miss the bus.5. Step inside the hangar.6. Listen to NASA scientists explain how to launch a rocket within a 30-second window to place the OCO-2 satellite in a precise point in an orbit with 17 other satellites. It’s all very extremely precise and complicated, so …
7. Ask a lot of questions! 8. If one of the scientists follows you out of the building saying that you still look confused, try your best to look smart. More importantly, try to your best to understand what he’s saying or you’ll end up misinforming your readers, or omitting vital information entirely.
9. As soon as you get back on the bus, cry. Cry that not only are you not smart enough work at NASA, but you’re not even smart enough to understand the answers to your own questions :( !
Below is the Pacific Ocean, just north of Honda Point, where 11 Naval destroyers ran aground in 1923, and seven sunk. Vandenberg Air Force Base is built on 64,000 acres of farmland that had originally been a part of a larger Army base, Camp Cooke. The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, and the following year, the U.S. responded by launching a Thor IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) from Vandenberg.
In 1959, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rode through Vandenberg on the train (the tracks run right through the military base) from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. His American hosts had wanted him to see the Atlas missiles aimed at the Soviet Union visible from the train.
But there’s evidence that the space shuttle was here:The sides of the canyon had to be cut away in real time to accommodate the space shuttle wings as it was being towed to SLC 6. Power lines also had to be elevated.
I have seen with my own eyes the space shuttle Enterprise being towed up the Hudson River on its way to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on June 6, 2012. And lemme tell you, it was a behemoth in a kiddie pool.
But I digress.
11. Eat lunch. Here are the non-commissioned officers cooking a yummy Santa Maria BBQ for us, complete with fresh homemade salsa, chili and veggie burgers for those with food issues. Thank you, NCOs!!!
Gasp! The world’s only Thor rocket launcher in existence today, that’s what!Empty, it’s a 6010-pound aluminum can. But with fuel, it’s a 110,000-pound monster. This is the “grandpa” of the Delta 2 rocket, and was used to launch medium-range ballistic missiles as well as reconnaissance and weather satellites.
Here is our Thor guide, Jay, pointing to the missile head that once contained a weather satellite:And here is one of the control panels:Oops! The anti-espionage sonar must have scrambled my phone and prevented me from taking a clear photo.
But I got a clear shot of the warning:Jay explained that back in the bad old days when they launched a Thor IRBM, they simply pushed the building (it’s on wheels on a track) away from the rocket, tilted the rocket and its missile head to vertical and blasted away. If this rocket ever goes missing, you didn’t see it here. This post will self destruct. I will no longer be blogging … unless there’s free wi-fi in the Federal Penitentiary at Lompoc. Gulp.
Did I tell you that I had to drive past the penitentiary on my way to the off-the-map south gate in the morning? The prison is a working farm on land that was formerly a part of the military base. I’m not so good at planting stuff. Especially under a hot white sun in the desert.
Hmmm. Well, I sure hope I don’t get busted for showing you all this top-secret rocket stuff.
Or for trying to twist Charles Bolden’s arm to give me a closer look at that LIVE rocket behind us:Mr. Bolden, who is the NASA Administrator, was often riding atop the rocket itself as an astronaut, so surely he wouldn’t bust an author for approaching the gate within a few hours of the 42nd liftoff from Vandenberg because how else would she launch a rocket, right?: Yikes!!! Can you believe I got this close to a FUELED rocket that was about to blast off into outer space on 227,000 pounds of thrust, accelerating from zero to Mach 22 in eight minutes???!!! Yes, that’s 22 times the speed of sound, or 16,874 mph. But not only is it supersonic fast, it’s “unbelievably precise and accurate,” as Randy Pollock, the original architect of the OCO, said in the morning news conference.
As it turned out, the OCO-2 launched on its second attempt, on July 2, at precisely 2:56:44 a.m. We couldn’t see it through the coastal fog from the public viewing area more than 3 miles away, but we heard its strong rumble and felt its sonar waves shaking our bones.
The OCO-2 is circling the earth every 99 minutes. It’s on a two-year mission, but has enough fuel for 12 years. It is collecting hundreds of thousands of measurements each day of the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The data will be used to help us manage climate change. With one eye on the stars, and its arms turned toward us, NASA scientists say it’s watching the earth breathe.
It takes my breath away.
A space shuttle-sized THANK YOU to Stephanie L. Smith, Courtney O’Conner, Veronica McGregor, John Yembrick @NASASocial, and Larry Hill, Vandenberg AFB Chief of Community Relatons and Tour Guide Extraordinaire, for your warmest welcome and hospitality at the launch of OCO-2. And a special thank you to all the NASA scientists and engineers who were so inspiring: Ralph Basilio, Ken Junks, Randy Pollock, Pavani Peddada, Ann Marie Eldering.
VANDENBERG AFB, CA — This is what it’s like to attend a NASA launch.
5:56 p.m. Take a nap.
6:05 p.m. Can’t sleep.
6:16 p.m. Still can’t sleep.
6:40 p.m. Doze off.
7:11 You startle awake. You stare. Is that 7 p.m. or a.m.? WHAT??? DID I MISS IT???
7:12 p.m. You try to go back to sleep.
7: 23 p.m. You check your email.
7: 31 p.m. You check your Twitter account.
7:40 p.m. You read other people’s tweets.
7:56 p.m. You’re famished.
8:02 p.m. But you’re too exhausted to get up.
8:24 p.m. You’re in your rental car cruising the streets for dinner.
10:21 p.m. Lights out. You take nap #2.
10:40 p.m. You blink. You can’t believe it’s not 12:30. You force yourself to go back to sleep.
10:48 p.m. You breathe in. You breathe out.
11:41 p.m. You bolt up. It’s useless. You turn on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. You laugh. Jimmy Fallon is really funny.
11:50 p.m. You check your email, etc., again.
1:02 a.m. You head out the door, finally.
Winding road along the coast in pitch blackness and fog.
You freak out a little. You wonder if you’re crazy. Sane people don’t go speeding towards a military base in the middle of the night. All you could think of is Pliny the Elder running towards Mt. Vesuvius as it was spewing its murderous fire.
A rocket launch with 220,000 pounds of thrust is quite volcanic, you imagine.
1:52 a.m. The point of no return.2:01 a.m. I join those going toward the white light.2:06 a.m. Everyone is settling in on the bleachers in the public viewing area 3.2 miles from SLC2 (Space Launch Complex 2, pronounced “slic”), and listing to Delta Launch Control over the P.A. system.
Before us, nothing but darkness and fog.
2:17 a.m. @NASASocial host Stephanie Smith explains that the first missile launches at Vandenberg were failures, until . . . peanuts were eaten in Mission Control. “Everything went smoothly as the peanuts went back and forth,” Smith said.
I jot the following in my writer’s notebook while listening to Delta Launch Control:
2:49 a.m. “Zero Alpha, Alpha zero.”
2:50 a.m. “You have permission launch.”
Cheers erupt from the bleachers.
2:52 a.m. The viewing area lights go off.
For a moment, silence.
2:53 a.m. “Vehicle fuel tank open.”
2:53 a.m. “One and two heaters off.”
“Minus 90 seconds.”
“Check hydraulic pressure go.”
“Minus 70 seconds. Hydraulic . . . .”
“65 seconds. We got no water flow.”
2:56 “Hold water flow . . . main power on and apply . . . four-inch line.”
“Perform hydraulic . . . .”
2:57 “Launch will not be occurring this morning.”
Larry Hill, Director of Community Relations, apologizes for the “disappointment.”
Stephanie Smith says, “Better a good scrub than a bad launch.”
3:01 People start to leave.
3:17 Social media attendees linger, tweeting, chatting, reluctant to end a long, happy day in which we got to see and walk through many areas of a top-secret military base, chat with the brightest minds in science and engineering, meet Charles Bolden, the Administrator of NASA himself, and got treated like VIPs.
This what we saw yesterday:
The Cold War is dead and if NASA out to prove anything, it’s that science is fun and cool.
Women and minorities are not anomalies at NASA.
Youth is not disdained. (Many social media attendees were students.)
Age is revered. (Each succeeding generation of missiles is built on the knowledge of its predecessors.)
Science is a catalyst for improving lives. (Measuring the world’s carbon dioxide and offering solutions for “faster, cleaner and less noise” aeronautics, as a start.)
The NASA spirit is the indomitable human spirit. “We know how to get our butt kicked, pick ourselves up and press forward,” Charles Bolden said while standing in front of the OCO-2, just hours before the scheduled launch.
A failure to launch is not a failure, NASA. It’s a resounding success. Of the thousands of mechanical functions on board, you caught the malfunction. Seconds before liftoff. Before disaster struck. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is.
I, for one, am not disappointed. I got to experience an aborted launch. And just as you need shadow to see beauty, I needed to see NASA at “failure” to see NASA at its best. And the best is this: you DID launch yesterday. You launched yourselves into a new age with a new generation, with new work to do.
It’s not about who has the most toys anymore. Or who can reach whose motherland with a missile first.
It’s about being smart and helpful. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about responsibility.
And when you try again tonight, I’ll be there — not for the reason I came in the first place — for the thrill, but because I want to be a part of that fearlessness that looks into the dying sun and leaps.
NASA, you ROCK it.
SANTA MARIA, CA — When I got to my mini rocket in Los Angeles this morning to blast off to Santa Maria near the Vandenberg Air Force Base . . . I nearly tripped a gentleman with a cane. Bad me. He’s at the center of the photograph above.
Later, I noticed that his shirt was embroidered with the NASA globe insignia. So I had to ask — “Are you going to the launch?” When you’re an author it’s usually a good idea to talk to strangers. You could learn something.
He turned out to be James O. Norman, Director, Launch Services. He’s the guy in charge of the rocket!!! It was my lucky day! Normally, Mr. Norman works at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. But today, since he’s the BOSS of the team of scientists working on the Delta II rocket, he had come to oversee the pre-launch testing (not open to the media). Oh, I should have told him I was a member of the top-secret military unit responsible for the new paint job, or something like that, when he asked what OCO-2 unit I work in. He thought I was a rocket scientist! And so did the car rental guys!
Anyway, this is what I learned from Mr. Norman: when the Delta II blasts off, it goes from zero to Mach22 in eight minutes. That’s 22 times faster than the speed of sound!!! The speed of sound is 761.207051 miles per hour. So the Delta II goes from 0 to 16,746.5551 miles per hour in eight minutes.
And I thought that race car I drove in Tucson was badass.
I have NO CONCEPT of this power. None.
But in about 28 hours, I will find out.
For those of you who want to know everything-you-need-to-know about the OCO-2-before I take the tour tomorrow, here’s the pre-launch press briefing that they gave us via an Internet live-feed today:
Length: 6.96 ft (2.12 meters) — approximately the same as the typical wing span of the American Bald Eagle 1.8 -2.3 meters (5.9 – 7.5 ft).
Width (stowed): 3.08 ft (0.94 meters) — a little wider than the girth of the typical American refrigerator.
Weight (spacecraft and science instrument): 499.5 killer rabbits — or 454 kilograms (999 pounds).
Power: 815 watts — runs a small waffle iron, coffee maker, or toaster, but not enough to run a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner or air conditioner — in other words, you could make breakfast, but not look very good while doing it.
Primary science instrument: three-channel grating spectrometer. Don’t ask me what that is. I have no idea. But maybe it has something to do with the solar panel-looking arms sticking out from it.
Instrument Dimensions: 5.3 feet by 1.3 feet by 2 feet (1.6 meters by 0.4 meters by 0.6 meters) — hey, that’s an exact description of me in my golf shoes! Yikes!!! In case of malfunction…
Instrument Weight: One Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, or two gorillas — 288 pounds (131 kilograms). Whew! Not a description of me, not even close.
Launch: No earlier than July 1, 2014, at 2:56:44 a.m. PDT (5:56:44 a.m. EDT) — and no later than 2:57:14 a.m. PDT (5:57:14 a.m. EDT) — from Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W), Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Launch Window: 30 seconds daily — this means that if they miss the 30-second window, they must wait for the same 30 seconds the next day to attempt it again. This is because the OCO-2 has a precise place along the “A-train” of 17 satellites passing a certain point of the earth at an exact time each day. This is not a random firing, people! This is 30 seconds of man’s highest intelligence and the poetry of the universe coming together.
Primary Mission: Two years Orbit Path: Near-polar, sun-synchronous, 438 miles (705 kilometers), orbiting Earth once every 98.8 minutes and repeating the same ground track every 16 days.
Orbital Inclination: 98.2 degrees — don’t ask. I don’t know what this means.
NASA Investment: $467.7 million (design, development, launch and operations) — the same price as the Paris Marriott Hotel Champs-Elysees, which a Chinese investor recently agreed to buy for 344.5 million euros ($648 million).
Wow. That’s a lot of money.
If I had $648 million, I would . . .
Well, I wouldn’t be leaving my house at 3:45 a.m. tomorrow morning to sit in coach class without any food for six hours on a commercial flight to California, that’s for sure! I’d blast off in my own private Delta II rocket!!!
See you at the launch :) !!!