Ramble With Me.

Appropriately Inappropriate.

It’s Uranus Day!

You might be thinking I just pulled that out of my ass but really it was on March 13th, 1781 that Sir William Herschel first observed an undiscovered planet beyond the orbit of Saturn. Finding Uranus was not easy. Herschel had to get up before the crack of dawn and look deeply into the nooks and crannies of the night sky. At first he thought what he’d spotted was a comet because the idea of another planet all the way up there seemed ridiculous. Other astronomers who probed the sky had seen Uranus and assumed it was a star or comet. It took almost two years of analysis and scrutiny before Herschel himself acknowledged that he’d discovered Uranus. The name for the new planet was also not accepted for almost seventy years because astronomers kept laughing every time someone asked if they’d been looking at Uranus, but it’s been the butt of jokes ever since.

And what better way to celebrate this day of Uranus than with a trip to historic Uranus, Missouri? If you want to know how to get to Uranus all you have to do is take the Herschel Highway. If you don’t get that joke find an astronomer or a thirteen-year old boy to explain it to you after they stop laughing.

 

Holy Mackerel.

I used to walk to Centennial Park at least two times a week, sometimes more depending on how work was going. My job isn’t stressful but sometimes I still need to get out and clear my head. This seems to be especially true in winter, but when the shock of cold air hits me my head clears up pretty quickly and I don’t need to go far. For some reason I’ve also found myself drawn in the opposite direction most of the time, toward the city’s urban heart instead of away from it, instead of to this small oasis of nature in the middle of the urban sprawl.

I felt that way today too. I felt like I needed to stick to concrete, to wander between buildings and construction and the destruction of old neighborhoods. So naturally I headed in the exact opposite direction.

I took some bread from my lunchwith me too. Back when I went to Centennial Park regularly I’d sometimes feed the ducks, but only in winter, because in the summer the ducks don’t want old bread when they’ve got other stuff to feed on. And even in the winter they can be finicky which is fine because I’ve learned that bread is bad for ducks. The ducks weren’t out either. They were sticking to their island in the middle of the lake.

Still I tossed the remains of my lunch into the water and enjoyed the frenzy that followed. The ducks may not need any handouts but I assume pickings are slim under the surface at this time of year. And then I turned back to work, my head a lot clearer from a moment of nature bread in tooth and claw.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Source: National Library of Wales

Source: National Library of Wales

Dylan Thomas died on November 9th, 1953, almost sixty-three years ago, in New York after a series of reading tours and the premiere of his play for voices Under Milk Wood. In November 1991, twenty-five years ago, give or take a few days, I made a pilgrimage to Laugharne, Wales, the place he called home in the last years of his life and where he wrote his last poems.

I’ve written about my somewhat ill-fated trip to Dylan’s home before. What I didn’t think about until recently was the similarities between Dylan’s trips across the United States and my trip to and across Britain, what had and hadn’t changed, and what’s changed since then.

Dylan Thomas was a famous poet when he came to the United States to do a series of reading tours. His first trip was an overnight flight where he was too shy to talk to any of his fellow passengers whom he described, according to one source, as a lot of “gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians”. I was a mere student wedged into a center seat–I always prefer a window seat–between fellow students. Dylan spent several days getting loaded in New York before he went off to other parts. As soon as I arrived in London my fellow students and I were loaded onto a bus and driven off to Grantham which gave us a few hours to get to know each other.

Dylan’s itinerary across America was carefully planned and he read and talked to packed performance halls. When I set out for his home I had no clue where the hell I was going and neither did anyone else. He was mostly driven across America although he also took a few trains. Most of my trip was by train, although I could only get to Laugharne by an old rickety bus–thirty-eight years after Dylan Thomas’s death the little Welsh seaside town he loved was still isolated. None of his biographers, including his wife Caitlin, know why he settled in Laugharne, just that it had always been a stop on his weekend pub crawls. He was a wanderer and I think he just found it by accident and liked the look of the place.

And on my return trip I arrived at Nottingham station so late at night I had to take a taxi from there to Grantham. I was driven by Big Dave who, when he learned where I’d been, told me the Welsh were a lot of gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians.

The main thing that’s changed in the intervening quarter century is the internet. The Boat House Museum, closed when I arrived at its gate, has its own website. Now I can check train times and bus schedules too. I could plan out the entire trip from this side of the pond. In 1991 it was mainly dumb luck that I found myself accidentally sitting in Dylan’s seat, or in his corner anyway, in the Brown’s Hotel Pub in Laugharne where I drank a pint before I walked a bat-black path up a hill and sat by his grave.

If I made the same trip now there’d be no accidents, no missed connections, no aimless wandering. I’d know in advance what I’d find and that leaves me feeling something has been lost.

 

Nightmare On My Street.

I take Halloween seriously. That’s why I went to a professional haunted house on the night of a full moon. Also my wife drove because it was a pretty good distance, in Madison, Tennessee, which is north of Nashville and she was concerned I’d get lost and end up in Madison, Wisconsin, which is entirely possible. She also waited in the car with a stack of books and her knitting because haunted houses aren’t really her thing. Her reasons for marrying a guy with a fairly dark and twisted imagination whose favorite holiday is Halloween may have something to do with the saying that opposites attract, but that’s another story.

nightmare1When I was a kid I loved haunted houses, although the only ones I knew were amateur productions put on by Boy Scout troops and church youth groups. My first acting gig was for one. My parents recorded about ten minutes of me screaming “Help me! Help me!” The tape player was then put on top of a refrigerator to give people the idea that there was a small child trapped inside. The scariest thing about that might be that parents would record the mock-suffocation of one of their own, but I really got into it and still smile whenever I see an old refrigerator.

In my adolescence I’d also be a live performer in amateur haunted houses, one year as a demonic spider creature in a web-filled lair, the next year as a mad scientist in a room full of beakers, test tubes, and approximately five tons of dry ice. I didn’t care that it was a lot of work and lost money, but I was the only one. My church youth group never put on another haunted house.

nightmare7Professional haunted houses have been around for a while in various locations–Nashville Nightmare has been putting on exhibits for six years now–and I’ve always been intrigued but this was my first time to go to one. I had no idea what to expect. Well, from my amateur days I did expect that I’d be part of a group that would walk through a series of rooms with horrific scenes and the occasional costumed character who’d jump out at me. And I was right, but there was so much more. There was a maze built out of hanging sheets where an evil clown jumped out at people trying to find their way out. There were costumed characters wandering around. There were small children although no refrigerators. There was a gift shop.

nightmare2 nightmare3 nightmare4 nightmare5 nightmare6The whole thing was glorious sensory overload for any Halloween fan.

I went through all four exhibits—starting with Horror High where I was joined by a guy and his young son. The guy was a haunted house veteran. It was his son’s first time. We got separated in the dark tunnels of Industrial Undead, but they seemed to be having fun.

Next was Night Terrors–the most traditional of the group–and of course I saved Fairy Tale Hell, the very best, for last.

As I meandered through a bloody Snow White asked me, “Do you have an apple for the queen? No? Then perhaps your heart.”

It was tempting but my heart belongs to another, back in the car. And I think the queen and I share too much to be a good match. You know the old saying: opposites attract.

Although it’s nice to have friends who also take Halloween seriously.

nightmare8

 

 

Get A Ride!

Yesterday I wrote about how, like any good Star Trek fan, I celebrated the 50th Anniversary on September 8th with a marathon of episodes and movies, including Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home which I first saw in the theater with a friend who I thought was a bigger Trek fan than me. He had a whole series of books, and comic books, and was the only person I knew–prior to the recent reboots, anyway–who knew Uhura’s first name.

And then as we were coming out of the theater he said, “Well, it was pretty good except for that crap about the whales.” And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought every fan knew that Star Trek’s science fiction was merely a smokescreen that allowed Gene Roddenberry to take on controversial subjects like racism, sexism, and, um, the environmental threat posed by invasive species.

Tribbles were actually a metaphor for the zebra mussel. Source: Wikipedia

And for a while I thought, Well, he’s just not a real Star Trek fan. It was a terrible assumption on my part. I was falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy, and not just because James Doohan’s accent was fake, but that’s another story. Fans come in many types and varieties. All that makes someone a Star Trek fan is that they enjoy Star Trek, right? Besides I have a conundrum that’s got me questioning whether I’m really a fan. In his book Get A Life William Shatner shares a story about his decision to walk from his hotel to a horse show one morning. It was a crisp, sunny day and he was feeling his oats. It was only when he realized how many miles he’d be hoofing it that he started to panic. At an intersection he talked to a couple in a pickup truck stopped at a red light, explaining who he was and begging for a ride. They pointedly ignored him but before they drove off the woman yelled, “Kirk sucks! Picard rules!”

I have trouble believing this story because I don’t think any true Star Trek fan would turn down the chance to give Captain Kirk a lift, and yet I also don’t think any true Star Trek fan would doubt William Shatner, especially since that book was such a love letter to fans. So, how do I solve the conundrum?

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/trekkies/n9511

Interplanetary Bowling.

bowling1Every painting has a story behind it. Most just aren’t recorded. I know the story behind this one, that I’ve had for nearly thirty years now, because I was there when it was made. This wasn’t just luck. It was made for me.

I was at a science fiction and gaming convention in southern Indiana. Things like games and costumes get a lot of attention but if you’ve never been to one you might not know they also sometimes have an art room. Artists would bring various works or paint them right there at the convention. I sat and watched one artist paint a ringed planet and a distant star for half an hour and finally asked him, “Do you mind being watched?”

“If I minded being watched I wouldn’t be painting out here,” he replied.

The last night of the convention there was always an art auction and I’d bid on a few things, never winning because I was easily outbid. An older guy who knew me was sitting behind me. Finally he leaned forward and said, “Chris, would you like a painting?”

“Sure,” I said. That was why I’d been bidding.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and left.

The guy knew me because he knew almost everybody. He was one of the convention organizers. And yet I really didn’t give what he’d said any further thought until the next morning when I was on my way to breakfast and he grabbed me.

“Come on, they’re in the art room,” he said.

What was in the art room? Since it was the last day as far as I knew everything was being packed up, but one of the artists was in there sitting at a table painting the nebula you see in the picture. A couple of the other artists were watching him.

“Hey,” one of them said, “can I add something?”

The painting was passed on to the other artist, and then a third one decided to add something. And then they all signed it, which generated a lot of excitement and envy.

I didn’t realize it but this was the first time these three artists, who were well-known in science fiction circles and in high demand for book covers and other custom work, had ever collaborated on anything. It was also the first time anyone knew of that multiple artists had ever collaborated on a single work at a convention. This generated a lot of interest and a lot of envy. I was getting offers on the painting even before I left the room.

All these years later it’s not that valuable. The next year, and in the years that followed, it became a tradition at the convention for several artists—sometimes as many as five or six—to collaborate on a single painting that would then be auctioned off for charity. That made my little painting a lot less unique and less valuable. I still like it. It has a couple of subtle details that make me laugh.

bowling2It’s those details that made me think it needed something else. The story behind it is interesting, but it needed another story.

“Space Pin”

The TMA-114s were designed for speed and efficiency, not maneuverability, with a curved design pared down to the very basics. The base held the highly compact sulfur compound that propelled the ships at high speed, and also earned them the nickname “silent but deadly”. The bulging middle was all storage space, well-protected and reinforced, while the narrow neck held all the control systems. At the rounded top sat the single occupant’s quarters and the instrument panel, both of which the engineers had argued against. They were certain, in that special way only engineers, gods of their technical domains, could be, that there was no need. It was a straight shot from the mining fields of Ceti Alpha V to the freight yards just outside the star’s gravity well, and a computer could handle the minor adjustments needed to keep each ship on course. But delendium is unstable stuff even under ideal circumstances, and even though it cut into their bottom line the bigwigs insisted on a human presence in each ship.

Captain Walker had made so many runs she only had to look at the clock to know where the ship was. On the starboard side a few asteroid fragments of Ceti Alpha VI hung lazily against the Kraken Nebula. On the port was the planet’s former moon, now a minor planet spinning in a tight elliptical orbit. The three craters on its far side were mysterious in their depth and regularity but had never garnered any real scientific interest. Shippers had nicknamed it Sixteen Tonner, from an old Tellurian ballad. She leaned back in the seat and had started to drift off when the klaxon sounded.

“Malfunction,” she thought. The ships were aging and small things went wrong all the time, usually in the kitchen or sleeper, but on one trip the entire navigation system had fizzled. The engineers assured her this was not a problem since there was no reason she’d ever need it.

She was checking the overhead panel when she saw Sixteen Tonner pass in front of the window, moving at an impossible speed. Impossible. She checked the scanner but it only confirmed what she’d just seen. The moon was moving upward relative to her ship, and moving fast, as though being lifted by some invisible hand. She expanded the display and watched, fascinated. The only thing she could think that could cause that sort of movement was a black hole, but there was no radiation, and nothing else in the system was affected. It had already climbed high above the ecliptic plane and was moving backward. Then suddenly it dropped and changed direction. She drew a line with her finger. If it stayed on its present course it would hit the ship. And her. And enough delendium, the scientists said, to punch a hole in the fabric of space.

She opened the mic. “Shipyard, I have an emergency. Please respond stat.”

Static. She couldn’t tell if they were receiving or if she’d be able to get their reply if they did. No one ever thought to check the com array because no one ever needed it.

Sixteen Tonner was accelerating now, fixed on its collision course.

Walker flipped through the screens, looking for manual control, and trying to remember the training from more than five years ago, training that hadn’t been very thorough because of the engineers’ assurances that no one would ever need it. She tapped the screen and waited. And then heard one of the neck jets fire. She tapped again, starting a second one and pushing up the level. Slowly the course changed. She went back to the display and watched as Sixteen Tonner glided by, just kilometers away, spinning so fast those three craters looked like black stripes.

She switched back to auto and let the system self-correct the course. Periodically she’d go back and look at the display, watching how, against all laws of physics, Sixteen Tonner simply slid back into its orbit.

She planned to have a long talk with the engineers when she got the freight yards.

Deep in the Kraken Nebula an energy surge welled up and rippled through the background of space. Had any instrument picked it up it might have interpreted it as a voice speaking a single word.

Gutter.

Thrill Ride.

skyline

Nashville’s skyline changes daily.

There are plans in the works to add a rollercoaster to Nashville’s skyline. Aside from the obvious questions—“Why?” and “WHY?” and of course “We’ve got everything else, so why not?”—I want to know where they’re going to put it, how much it will cost to ride, how long it will be before the lines diminish enough that I can go for a spin on my lunch break—or rather before since I wouldn’t want to risk losing my lunch—and of course, why? If you want to be strapped into a vehicle scaling the heights at high speeds surrounded by dozens of other screaming people I suggest driving down 840 in the early afternoon when everybody’s rushing back to work after their lunch break. Admittedly the planned structure does look kind of cool, at least if you think taking Seattle’s Space Needle and wrapping a high-speed roller coaster around its exterior is a cool thing, but whoever’s behind the plan might have forgotten that Nashville used to have roller coasters. Nashville used to have its own amusement park called Opryland. It died a slow painful death and was dismantled. It’s now a mall. I went to the Opry Mills mall once several years ago—I went to the Tower Records, which was in its own death throes at the time. It was, well, a mall, albeit bigger than any of Nashville’s other now defunct malls. It had a merry-go-round inside it which seemed like a sad reminder of the amusement park that used to occupy that space. As I walked around the outside of the mall I found an even sadder reminder: Opryland’s old entrance gates, where people in bright shirts and straw hats used to smile and take your money, were still intact. The mall builders tore down everything else but left the gates, like the legs of Ozymandias, still standing. I remembered how the ticket sellers would also stamp the back of your hand as you entered. I felt like it was a stamp of approval, and I liked it that after we went home in the evening, after I’d gone to sleep, I could wake up the next morning and the faded traces of that stamp would still be on my hand.

Yes, there was something pretty goofy about an amusement park built around a country music theme. Then again theme parks are kind of goofy anyway. You pay for the privilege of wandering around an enclosed fantasy world where you’re subjected to sensory overload and nickeled and dimed at every turn. At least Opryland’s tribute to local music history wasn’t as much of a stretch as the multiple iterations of Six Flags. Disney, on the other hand, has a huge and expansive universe to draw on for its theme park themes, and not all of its rides are based on movies. Some of its movies are based on rides.

I understand Opryland went under because it was a huge money pit. In fact it’s amazing it hung on for a quarter of a century, from 1972 to 1997, especially since at most it was open only seven months of the year, from March to October, and for the first month usually operated only on weekends. From November to April it was shuttered and empty, except for an ugly incident when a caretaker went crazy and tried to kill his wife and son before he froze to death in the petting zoo, but that’s another story.

Every spring commercials for Opryland would pop up on TV and that was one of my favorite signs that the cold dark Tennessee winter would soon be at its end, that summer was coming, and coming rapidly. It didn’t matter that we usually only went to Opryland once each summer. It was something to look forward to. It may not have been the happiest place on Earth—I’m not sure any theme park really is in spite of some of them claiming that title—but it was a lot of fun, even from the beginning. The scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where Clark parks at the very back of the completely empty parking lot, with the idea that they’ll be able to get out easily, doesn’t make me laugh. It stirs a little nostalgia in me, not because my father did that, but because the Opryland parking lot was patrolled by little trams that carried people to the entrance. I loved riding the trams with their hard plastic seats. They were like a ride before the rides, and at night when we were headed home they carried little globe lights that could be seen floating along in the dark.

As I got older it seems like I went to Opryland more often, or maybe the trips were just more enjoyable because I was no longer tied to my parents and could go off with my friends. Early one summer my friend John had me convinced that he and my friend Jeff had been given season passes and that they’d be going daily, or at least several times a week, and that I’d need a season pass too if I wanted to spend any time with them. My parents called his bluff. They refused to buy me a season pass without seeing his first and his entire plan—to pressure his parents into buying him a season pass because I had one—unraveled. Even now I think it was a pretty clever plan. John’s a successful lawyer now.

Opryland’s country music theme meant it had a lot of stages and even a couple of theaters where shows were put on, like a revue of the history of American music, which made the place vaguely educational. This meant that it was at the very least an outlet, if not a jumping off point, for aspiring performers. But for me the real attraction was the rides. To get across the park there was the train and the Skyride, which took you up in a four-person car over the park. There was The Barnstormer, another plane ride that went around in a circle but you could look down from a hundred feet up at the lake where The Raft Ride—faux wooden rafts—slowly carried people around the water. Sometime in the late 1970’s Opryland upgraded its country music theme slightly and added Doo Wah Diddy City. I guess they figured nostalgia for ‘50’s rock’n’roll would be safe, and the Disc Jockey Ride—sort of like Disney’s Mad Tea Cup ride, but with wooden half-barrels—was renamed The Little Deuce Coupe. It was also enclosed under a dome and riders were subjected to a psychedelic light show. It was fantastic. And there was an amazing antique carousel on the shore of the lake that had been rescued from a defunct theme park in Germany. There were also the Tin Lizzies, Model T’s that you drove around a track. You didn’t even need a license. My favorite ride was The Tennessee Waltz—spinning swings.

Source: Wikipedia

There were also the roller coasters. When I was seven or eight I really, really, really wanted to ride The Wabash Cannonball, the park’s central massive coaster that flipped riders upside down which, at the time, was a big deal even though it’s a standard feature of coasters now. My parents convinced me to work my way up to it, starting out on the kiddie coaster, which jerked around about three feet off the ground, and then I rode The Timber Topper, the park’s second-biggest coaster that would be renamed The Rock’N’Roller Coaster. And that’s when I realized I really, really, really didn’t like roller coasters. While everyone around me was screaming and throwing their hands in the air like a bunch of mid-afternoon commuters going down 840 I was holding on and hoping for it to be over. I wouldn’t get on another roller coaster again until I was in college, the last time I would go to Opryland. The roller coaster was called Chaos and was completely enclosed, taking riders through a series of 3-D screens. Except they hadn’t gotten the 3-D glasses yet so it took us through a series of very blurry screens. It was terrifying but I kind of enjoyed it.

And yet I didn’t go and try the other roller coasters. Looking back now it feels like a missed opportunity. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been more inclined to push my own limits, to try things that once terrified me, like seeing horror films or eating tomatoes. I haven’t been to an amusement park since the last time I went to Opryland but I think I’d like to have another go at roller coasters, to see if maybe this time I’ll get a thrill out of a thrill ride. Nashville’s skyline rollercoaster is still a few years away and whether it’ll even be built is still uncertain at this point, but if it is I’ll take a ride. Why not?

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