Ramble With Me.

On The Road Again.

The last time I rode a Greyhound bus was in 2000. I recently took one to Cincinnati. It would have been cheaper to fly, but since there are no direct flights from Nashville to Cincinnati the flight would have meant stopovers in Dallas, Honolulu, and Poughkeepsie, and while I didn’t mind that my wife thought it wasn’t such a great idea. I was also looking forward to seeing what had changed.

The first change, of course, was the Greyhound station itself. The old one was dull, gray, and dingy, and filled with an assortment of drifters, grifters, and sifters. The new one, in an entirely different location, is a much brighter shade of gray and seemed to have picked up a higher class of clientele. The old black and white TV sets firmly attached to chairs that cost you a quarter for five minutes of viewing were gone, replaced with plugs for charging whatever devices you happen to be carrying. I couldn’t use any, though, because there was no sitting room. My bus was scheduled to leave at 5:05 am. I got there at 4:15, hoping to beat the crowd, not realizing that the crowd had been there since at least the day before and taken up almost all available space. Maybe recent events in the airline industry have prompted more people to stay grounded.

In the old days there’d be an announcement of departures over a crackly intercom. This time a driver stood at one of the terminal doors and, in a clear voice loud enough to be heard by everyone,  announced, “ALL THOSE DEPARTING FOR MEMPHIS, ST. LOUIS, KANSAS CITY, AND ON PLEASE LINE UP HERE!”

Needless to say this was not my bus. My bus, it turned out, was leaving from the terminal next to it, the one where the driver walked in, looked around and mumbled something to the people closest to him before leaving again. I had to ask around a bit to confirm that it really was the bus to Cincinnati because the LED sign on the front of the bus said HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

I’m not making that up. It was part of Greyhound’s War on Some Late May Holiday.

In the old days whenever I’d take a Greyhound bus there were usually a lot of seats available. This time when I stepped onto the bus every seat was taken except one. In the very back. Next to the bathroom. A woman sat in the window seat on the far right. Next to her, in the middle seat, was a man holding a baby with his legs spread so far apart his knee was in the aisle.

The only open seat was to the left of him.

I tried to make myself as small as possible and we both might have been more comfortable if he’d put his knees together. Instead he decided to complain bitterly about the bus being too crowded. And I realized that f-bombs, unlike other forms of munition, lose their strength when you drop one every other word, but that’s another story.

The woman leaned across him and smiled at me. “Excuse me sir, could you move to another seat?”

“I would if there were one.”

It was true and also resulted in the man dropping several more f-bombs, none of which, surprisingly, were directed at me. Then we got a lucky break: a bus company representative came on and offered travel vouchers to anyone who’d take a later bus. I might have taken the offer but my diaphragm was compressed by my fellow passenger’s lower thigh. Several people did, though, and I was able to squeeze out and grab a window seat.

The bus finally got underway a little after six and I settled back with approximately two days of podcasts I’d downloaded in preparation for a long trip.

The bus stopped at Louisville en route to Cincinnati. In the old days I only had to get off the bus at my final destination. Disembarkation is now mandatory at every stop, so I got to look around the Louisville station and get yelled at for taking pictures of the cop and his sniffer dog.

The Louisville station, by the way, has been updated like the Nashville one, and, in addition to a bright gray color and lack of dinginess, also boasts a gift shop and game room.

Then it was back on the bus and I was fortunately able to snag another window seat. The rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful and, possibly because the driver exceeded the speed limit a few times, we arrived in Cincinnati on time.

The Cincinnati Greyhound station has not been updated, and I’m pretty sure they even still had some of those chairs with the TVs. Next time I may opt for the flight with the stopovers, even if it does mean going to Poughkeepsie.

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.

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