Ramble With Me.

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?

Tourist Season.

Just once I’d like someone to ask me how to get to the Ryman Auditorium so I could say, “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” although the Ryman is also a former church so I could just as easily say, “Preach!”
I do get stopped frequently by people asking for directions. Once, less than fifty feet from West End, a guy asked me if I knew which way was West End. I just told him instead of being a smartass and saying, “West.” Another time as I was waiting to cross the street on my way back to work a car stopped next to me and a woman leaned out and asked how to get to the riverfront. I was a little surprised by the question–I thought it was fairly obvious. You just look for the skyline and head that way. Even though Nashville suffers from a great deal of sprawl–decades ago the city’s government merged with Davidson county to form one metropolis–the downtown area is pretty compact. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the downtown branch of the public library, Riverfront Park, the Centennial Sportsplex, and even the Ryman are within easy walking distance of the section of Broadway where you’ll find the infamous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and other honkytonks. Downtown Nashville has become a thriving tourist attraction which still tickles me. I remember when lower Broadway was a much seedier place where you’d find ladies of the evening in broad daylight, but that’s another story. Anyway I just pointed to the tall buildings that make up the skyline and told her to head for those. It reminded me of the time I was in Cleveland and left my directions to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in my hotel room. Rather than go back for them I remembered it was on Lake Erie so, like a baby sea turtle, I headed for the water. It was nice to be able to look around where I was going rather than looking down at directions.
And it’s lucky for me I get people asking me for landmarks rather than street names because I’m terrible at street names. This is partly my own fault. Decades of not driving and relying mostly on public transportation I haven’t really focused on street names. I can get around really well but if you ask me for directions to a place I’ll tell you, “Turn left at the building that looks like Batman,” but I couldn’t tell you what street its on. This is also partly the city’s fault. I’ve mentioned both West End and Broadway–two streets I do know, which is easy because they’re both the same street–one turns into the other, and if you head west on West End it then becomes Harding Road.
The only time I wasn’t really able to help someone who asked me for directions was when a young woman carrying a tuba case asked me where the Blair Music Library was. This was just outside JJ’s Coffee Shop, just a block away from Vanderbilt University. The Blair Music Library is part of Vanderbilt but on the farthest side of the campus from where we were. I gave her directions and was tempted to offer to help her carry her instrument, but I thought this might seem creepy coming from a complete stranger. And I figured a tuba player is prepared to go the distance, whatever it may be, even as far as Carnegie Hall.

 

This Is Getting Out Of Hand And Hand And Hand…

My fascination with octopuses must be an inborn trait. It’s not something I learned because as far as I can remember I’ve considered them amazing creatures and if, with their remarkable intelligence and dexterity, they were to replace us—unlikely, I know, since their copper-based blood makes them tire easily, and true oceanic blue bloods—I for one would welcome our new octopus masters.

The first time I ever went to a library I wanted to find a book about octopuses and checked out Octopus Lives In The Ocean by William and Peggy Stephens. Then I kept renewing it so many times I wonder why the library didn’t just let me keep it. And it was a terrifically honest and detailed book that led to me explaining octopus sex in great detail to my grandfather. He was impressed but unsure what to say so I added, “That reminds me of a joke. What did John Lennon say to the octopus? I wanna hold your hand and your other hand and your other hand…” He chuckled and said he preferred The Rolling Stones, so we listened to Let It Bleed together, but that’s another story.

There wasn’t a lot of cephalopod swag in those days because you can’t always get what you want, but octopuses finally seem to have gotten a hold in the public consciousness. Almost every aquarium I’ve been to has an octopus t-shirt so I’ve built up quite a collection. And one of these was a gift from my mother. Yes, I have enough octopus t-shirts to wear one every day of the week without repeating.

shirt5 shirt4 shirt3 shirt2 shirt1shirt6

shirt7

Thanks to the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Dauphin Island Estuarium, the Florida Aquarium, the Tennessee Aquarium, and my mother. I would thank the Oklahoma Aquarium but their octopus t-shirt was the same as one of the ones from the Aquarium of the Pacific and they also didn’t have a real octopus on display, but I do want to thank The Happy Octopus, also in Dauphin Island, even though they don’t have any real octopuses either. And now–true facts about the octopus.

The Romanians Of The Day.

romaniaThere’s getting off the beaten path and then there’s getting way off track which is what Snoop Dogg did when he posted to Instagram while visiting Bogota, Colombia, and, due to a misspelling, promoted the small Romanian village of Bogata. It was the biggest pop promotion of non-tourist destination since Iggy Pop’s tribute to the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, but that’s another story. Inhabitants of Bogata have been quick to capitalize on their accidental fame with a website that promotes the local stew, a few local attractions, and its natural setting as perfect for “chillin’”.

One commenter responded to Snoop’s error with “there is a lot of hemp there” according to Balkan Insight but the attractions of Romania may be subtler than that. As a country it’s had a difficult history. When the dictator Ceaucescu was overthrown it was the poet Marin Sorescu who was asked to make the announcement because Romanians have a profound love of and respect for poetry. And the TV show Dallas, which the country’s communist leaders broadcast in the hope that it would create disgust with western decadence, may have helped foment rebellion. Ordinary Romanians fell in love with the glamour of the Ewing clan. What I’m getting at is that rap and Romania have some surprising things in common.

Snoop Dogg may or may not take the next flight out of Bogata to the other side of the globe, but if he doesn’t I’d like to make this offer: bring me over there and I’ll promote Bagata. I’ll sing the praises of the local attractions, rave about how perfect the countryside is for chillin’, and, seriously, that stew sounds delicious. Even if we can’t work this out please send me a recipe.

I’m not famous but why should that stand in the way of what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I understand if we can’t work it out, but the offer stands. And if anyone from Bagota comes over here let me know. I know some great places for chillin’.

 

Please Drink Responsibly.

guinnessIt’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day some Americans commemorate by dyeing beer green and drinking it, as opposed to the other 364 days when they just drink un-dyed beer. I’m tempted to make a cheap shot about the poor quality of American beer but I’m not going to because American beer is not what it was when I was growing up. When I was growing up it was all thin, watery pilsners. The joke “Why is American beer like sex in a canoe?” wasn’t funny because it hit so close to the mark.

When I was four or five my father let me try a sip of his beer and I said I liked it because I thought beer was a grown-up thing to drink, sort of like coffee, which I also pretended to like because I thought it was a grown-up thing to drink. At least with coffee I could get away with adding three or twelve heaping spoonfuls of sugar but if you try that with beer the guys look at you kind of funny even though deep down we all know it would improve the flavor greatly.

I’m a fan of beer now as my friends and waist can attest, and for once in my life I was actually slightly ahead of the curve. It was Ireland that made me love beer and specifically Guinness that started it all. I was in a pub in the fair city of Dublin and a friend who’d been exasperated by my avoidance of beer said, “Chris, you’re in Dublin, capital of Ireland, the emerald isle, home of Yeats and Oscar Wilde, of Cuchulain, a land of sweeping history, great beauty, of magic and fairy tales, and some pretty damn good beer.”

This was the same guy who, earlier that same day, convinced me to go into the Judge Roy Bean Tavern—which is apparently still a going concern in Dublin–and eat nachos and drink tequila, but that’s another story. I like to think it was the Guinness that made him change his tune from Home on the Range to Molly Malone.

Anyway I tried a sip it tasted like very bitter, burnt coffee. I was looking for the sugar when he said, “Take a large drink.”

I took a gulp and it was good.

For weeks afterward I only drank Guinness. I still labored under the impression that there were only two types of beer in the world: Guinness and thin watery pilsners. I was oblivious to the fact that Britain and Ireland had done for beer what the French did for cheese. Not to mention what Britain and Ireland have done for cheese. Seriously. Stilton is delicious.

Then one night the same guy and I were in Edinburgh, in a pub. They didn’t have Guinness.

“Chris,” he said, “you’re in Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, land of the kilt and thistle, of Robert Burns, the Scottish crown jewels, of your own ancestors the Murrays, sweeping history, great beauty, magic and fairy tales, and some pretty damn good ale.”

He handed me a pint of Scottish ale. And it was good. My eyes and throat were opened. After that my answer to the question, “What’ll you have?” was usually, “Whatever I haven’t tried yet.”

So I’m thrilled with the whole craft beer movement, and happy to be in one of the top ten cities leading the way.

Today, though, out of respect for Irish tradition, should be celebrated with Guinness.

Or coffee, if you want something you can add sugar to. Or some cheese. You can have anything you like, really, as long you don’t need to add dye to it.

Guinness posters adorn JJ's Coffee Shop. You can also get beer there.

Guinness posters adorn JJ’s Coffee Shop. You can also get beer there.

It’s Just A Phase.

venus

Source: Weather Underground

It’s still dark in the mornings when I get up, but the days are gradually getting longer at both ends. In a few weeks I’ll be getting up after the dawn rather than before it. And Venus is getting harder to spot as it drops closer and closer to the horizon in the southeast but for now when the sky is clear I can still pick it out through the trees. Soon I won’t be able to see it at all. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I wonder sometimes what the ancient Greeks and Romans were thinking when they named the planets. Was it just a lucky guess that they named the largest planet in our solar system Jupiter? Maybe not—it’s the fourth brightest object in our sky, after the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. But since Venus is brighter why didn’t they call it Jupiter? I guess they named it after the goddess of love because they thought it was so beautiful. Looks can be deceiving. If they knew about the nightmare landscape below those clouds where the temperatures average more than four-hundred degrees Fahrenheit and there are blizzards of sulfuric acid snow they might not have thought it was all that beautiful. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama almost every planet in the solar system has human colonies. Even Neptune has an outpost on its moon Triton. The exception is Venus. Oh, and Pluto, since it was still considered a planet when the book was first published, but that’s another story.

That’s science fiction. Here’s a little science fact: when Galileo turned his telescope toward Venus he noticed it, like the Moon, had phases. That was his first clue that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around, something that was a slightly controversial idea at the time.

Anyway as our own planet spins around the Sun and the mornings come earlier Venus will disappear from my morning sky and I won’t think about it so much anymore. I’ll have to think about other things, like maybe putting on some pants in case the neighbors are looking.

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