Build a Rocket Boys: An Optimistic Slideshow inspired by Elbow’s “Lippy Kids”

I’m pretty sure that my earliest career aspiration was to be an aeronautical engineer. In part, I knew that such a path–combining as it did mathematical skill, engineering, and practical application–would please my Dad, who I desperately wanted to please. It was pretty much a given that I would go to Caltech, as he had done to get his geology degree, and I have fond memories of attending parent/child days at the college, whose obvious intention was to get the sons (and, to a lesser degree, daughters) of alumni to come to the venerable Pasadena institution as what would now be called “legacy” students. I was actually quite attracted to the idea of going. One of my few books growing up that I actually owned was a History of Flight, and I was fascinated by stories of the Montgofliers, Otto Lilienthal, Edmund Langley, the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Charles Lindbergh.  This was the sixties, and the romance of flight (e.g. “Catch Me if You Can”) and space travel were perhaps at their height. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a particularly skilled mathematician, my intuitive sense of space and ability to manipulate it were probably below average, and anything that required neatness, precision, a steady hand, and a keen eye (e.g. almost all scientific experiments) were pretty much beyond my sloppy, imprecise, clumsy, and near-sighted capabilities.

While I did eventually go to UCLA–a highly respected school on the west coast–there was little question that (in my father’s eyes at least) I was “settling” and taking the easy way out. Real scientists, those who did real work in the real world, whose work had fairly obvious real world consequences, went to Caltech; posers and liberal arts students went to UCLA.  In some sense that I still can’t quite explain, disappointing my father was worse than incurring his wrath, and it isn’t as if he would go on and on about what a failure I was. A look, a casual remark, or an occasional offhand gesture would be enough to convey the scope and magnitude of my inadequacy.

Nevertheless, I always kept my early interest in, even love of, flight and space travel. It was probably one of sources of my almost immediate attraction to the Elbow song, “Lippy Kids,” a song which seems to be about the intense friendships, almost arbitrary social rituals, and seemingly unlimited potential we still tend to identify with youth. To be honest, I don’t think the song is about building rockets in any literal way, but rather striving for and sometimes even achieving distant and lofty goals in whatever field of endeavor one might be drawn to. I had been kind of wanting to do a slideshow about this song (I love Elbow, by the way, and am really looking forward to seeing them again at The Wiltern this November), and two events last Tuesday sort of stimulated me to create this. The first was my psychologist suggesting that I might try making a slideshow that was wholly upbeat and optimistic as opposed to one that progressed from a bleak view of the world to a more positive one (e.g. “Bitter Salt,” and “Siren’s Song”). While this isn’t wholly optimistic, it comes close. Tuesday afternoon, I visited JPL on a tour, bringing my camera, and took lots of photos. This is actually the first slideshow I’ve done where some of the photography is actually my own, and I hope to develop that more in the future. The tour also brought back my early passions for flight and space travel, as well as the self-fulfillment (self-actualization?) that comes from doing something you love.  In that sense, it’s a kind of audio visual love letter to precocious, lippy kids everywhere. Hope you like it.

I am aware (as I hope is apparent in the slideshow) that it wasn’t just boys building rockets and studying science. With that in mind, this one is for Pam.