Bookworm: ‘Taxi’ a good, basic refresher course on life on Earth

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe”

  • By Charles S. Cockell
  • c. 2022, Harvard University Press
  • $26.95, 288 pages

You’re somewhat of a captive audience. The guy up front, the one who’s driving, really has all the power. He can speed up or slow down, yammer or stay silent. To get where you need to be, you have to go with his flow until you actually get there so you may as well just sit back. As in the new book “Taxi from Another Planet” by Charles S. Cockell, you might learn something.

“Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe” by Charles S. Cockell.

At the ends of long flights to conferences, symposiums, and home, former NASA scientist Charles Cockell says he looks forward to a cab ride to finish his journey. One reason is that taxi drivers are “particularly interesting to engage in” philosophical conversations because cabbies are “exposed to the bountiful and colorful menagerie of humanity.”

The questions he poses to cab drivers, and subsequent discussions, are as wide as they are deep.

The evolution of “churning, swirling matter” answers one question, for instance, when a driver asked Cockell if he thought he might have a doppelganger in another universe. An explanation gave the cabbie – and the reader – a reminder of our “rare haven” of a planet.

Or, let’s say aliens suddenly came to Earth tomorrow afternoon. Would we flee in horror, or would we welcome them with curiosity and a willingness to make peace? How aware are we of the cautions of finding out?

Will you ever have the chance to travel to Mars? Once we can, should we use the Red Planet as our “Plan B” if Earth becomes too crowded and polluted?  The answers beg for patience and a reminder that “Earth is the best planet we have for the foreseeable future.”

Is it possible that the aliens already “own” us? Will we be able to communicate with them, if they ever arrive?  Would we really be able to live our entire lives on Mars? And if we decide to forego space exploration in favor of “fixing” what’s wrong on Earth, are we prepared to forego the things space exploration teaches us?

So, it looks like another American moon trip is probable again, and the possibility of one day living on Mars is on the table. But were those old 1950s Martian-and-monster sci-fi movies at least a little right?

Take a deep breath and read “Taxi from Another Planet.”

Then relax. Author Charles S. Cockell gives readers a good, basic (and easy-to-understand) refresher course on life on Earth as he prepares to discuss life outside Earth, and it’s not at all scary. Cockell instead shows how science is relevant in his reader’s lives, with fun examples and pop-culture references. “Impossible,” in fact, isn’t a word that Cockell uses often; you’re invited to let your ideas roll, let your imagination go wild, and to dream ... carefully. 

While this is surely a book for adults, older teens who study the skies and make plans for a home on the moon will appreciate it, as well. Place your copy of “Taxi from Another Planet” near your telescope. You might find it captivating.

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“Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York”

  • By Ron Goldberg
  • c.2022, Empire State Editions/Fordham University Press
  •  $36.95, 512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside it.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old... scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign? 

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness.

And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the end-result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but it you’ve got patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.