Friday, July 31, 2009

Randomicity

I sit in front of a hissing and fluttering laptop, baby figure-eighting through my legs lobbying for attention. The hotheaded idiot on the radio’s screaming that the country’s coming to an end. Apocalypse Obama! Thunder grumbles in the near distance; high-frequency static says lightning’s in the air. Thoughts assault me. Should I turn on the teevee? Teacher, mother, secret lover … There may be the most awesomest show on right now, right this very minute, that I’m missing. Or there might be a documentary or a segment on that or this that will advance my career. That’ll make me see the big bright picture. You know, some talking head blah blah blah blah but suddenly that one thing – THAT ONE THING – that will all magically mystically make it click snap pop in my beaten and battered brain and All Things will fall into place. Oh, that baby’s now rifling through stacks of papers on the floor adjacent this wicker chair, but I’ll get to her later, when her mouth is black from paint that’s coming off some artwork-thing my oldest created at preschool. Books! Where are my books? I should not let the quiet and (wait: what quiet? I wonder as the dolt on the air is shouting that my tax dollars are funding all that’s evil and un-American) – I should not let the time go to waste – why not read a book? The Apollo book(s), the Catholic missionary book, or the diet books or the philosophy books or the books on UFOs and JFK theories and … wait, I’m thirsty. Perhaps a glass of cold water. Remember: need to spend $750 and get that valve on the hot water heater replaced ’cause the old one’s not up to code – AND THIS IS THE WATER GOING INTO MY CHILDREN’S BODIES! I pause and think: just how much of that water filter filters out the nasty stuff that laughs and spits on my town and state government’s “code”? Baby’s gnawing on a CD, and all I can hope is that she doesn’t catch my cold, if indeed it is a cold I have. Rain tip taps on the window behind me and four almost five years of fatigue wave over me, Schrodinger-like, tempting me with sweet whispered words to allow my eyes to close but there’s too much to do, too much to read, to assimilate, a great big cloud of curiosity that needs be sated, or else … or else … will this life have been worthwhile? What the hell caused me to even think such thoughts? Anyone? Bueller? Well, time to make the donuts. Hmm – how much more cultural cliches can I regurgitate? Regurgitato. Traffic on the radio, a baby rolling up a slip of paper (I hope it ain’t nothing important), head achy from too much chocolate and oh dear some frozen dinners in my near future and a dog in the woods …

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grandmother's Song

...

Be courteous kind and forgiving,
Be gentle and peaceful each day.
Be warm and human and grateful,
And have a nice thing to say.

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike,

Be witty and happy and wise.
Be honest and love all your neighbors,
Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant.

Be pompous, obese and eat cactus,
Be dull and boring and omnipresent.
Criticize things you don't know about,
Be oblong and have your knees removed.

Be tasteless, rude and offensive,
Live in a swamp and be three dimensional.
Put a live chicken in your under pants,
Get all excited and go to a yawning festival.

alternative last line: Go into a closet and suck eggs!


From the comedy album “Let’s Get Small” (1977) by the mighty Steve Martin.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An Antidote to Hegel

...


Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle, if you can’t read the words on the book cover.

Only a few words. I must admit that I only read about forty or forty-five pages of the book. It was a good read, too, but I have a bit too much on my plate at the moment. It’s slated for a re-read to completion at some indefinite point in the future, like, say, when I actually have a monetary income and children who are a bit older and self-sufficient.

It’s the second thing of Carlyle’s that I’ve read, and I find the man’s writing interesting in a way that early-nineteenth century writers are not usually thought. I love his choice of words. I love his jolly veiled sarcasm. I love the hyper-important tone taken by the narrator. I love the winding and unpredictable paths his wonderings take. However, at a quarter of the way into the work, I kinda knew where the book was going, though – who knows, not I! – I might have been surprised down the home stretch. Since my free-reading time has now dwindled to maybe thirty minutes a day, if that, there are other works that I think would be of better value for me to spend it on.

Sartor Resartus tells the story and thought of a highly-regarded German philosopher whose work is about to be published for the first time in Britain. More precisely, it tells it from the point of view of the man who is to spearhead the effort. A man who is fawning, sycophantic, enamored entirely with his subject and his subject’s convoluted philosophy. Though I may be mistaken, I saw a parody of Hegel, complete with its sweeping if somewhat nonsensical historicity, its self-importance and wonder at the prospect of discovering, or inventing at least, something new, its propensity for Capitalized Nouns, its seeing the cosmos in every minor detail.

How I wish I read the book a year and a half ago – I might have saved myself twenty or thirty hours of head-pounding torturous reading. But I’m painfully curious to a fault, and the temptation to decipher Hegel is still there, always, just biding its time, treading water in a darkened sea. May I read this book in full before I turn back to the Philosophy of History, or the History of Philosophy!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's Raw!

...

I’m not a big fan of teevee in general. I think I like, maybe, a half-dozen shows. Well, let’s see. My current favorite and what I regard as the funniest show on the air right now is The Office. I’m ashamed to admit I like American Idol, too, mostly the really, really bad auditions at the beginning of the season. I tend to dislike having “Idols” force-fed down my throat, as the shows does in its final couple of weeks. Also, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was sucked into Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice a few months ago.

Other than that, as far as shows go, I try to catch Simpsons and Family Guy whenever I can. Also, the more weird and esoteric shows you see on the History Channel and the usually-bad Sci-Fi channel, such as Monster Quest (though I find that the shaky-cam and ADD-editing of UFO Hunters makes that show unwatchable). Other things I’ll watch: O’Reilly in real small doses, Kudlow on CNBC once in a while, Discovery Channel documentaries if it’s one of those odd little topics I’m into. Primarily I watch teevee for the movies. The hierarchy goes something like this: the black-and-whites on TCM, some choice bad Sci-Fi channel movies (for the camp), then any other station.

But I just found one of my secret pleasures is back on the air, a new season six months early! Normally I think it starts around January, but now it’s geared up again to ruthlessly demand an hour of my life every week. I am talking about Hell’s Kitchen.

Now, in the early days of this blog, I posted on the differences between Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen. See here. Nowadays, I don’t watch Top Chef. There’s something about it that’s too snobby for my tastes. And back in May I made a decision to stop watching Hell’s Kitchen, because I felt “dirty” every time I’d watch an episode.

Why?

Hmmm. I guess, if I can stream-of-conscious it here, the show just seems sweaty and dirty. The contestants are sweaty and dirty. They’re gross. I would not want to eat anything prepared by them. And not only are they gross, they’re stupid. Or at least the producers are sure to include a couple of really dumb apples, I guess to get under Chef Gordon’s skin. You know, conflict. Conflict sells reality teevee sells beer and shampoo.


And Chef Gordon. Yeah, I know the guy’s a gazillionaire, and he owns-slash-runs a hundred restaurants all across the globe. And he’s the best chef to ever boil water. But … his people skills are decidedly lacking. However, I did catch a couple of those shows he does where he turns around restaurants that are sinking faster than the Titanic. He does have a human side, and if you had to boil down his management philosophy to a trite phrase, it’d be “tough love.” Still, all these ingredients thrown into the pot make for something quite off-putting.

And I will be watching it tonight. Oh dear, what does this say about me? That I consider HK a guilty pleasure? Or I detest myself for liking something so lowbrow? Or that I enjoy vicarious conflict? Probably all three. But I’ll tell you this:

This season is the last season I’m watching! I swear! Really, I really, really this is the last season of Hell’s Kitchen for LE! I promise!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Intersection of God and the Space Race

...

Here’s something you did not know.

Go back forty years ago, to July 20, 1969.

Go up about 240,000 miles or so, to the surface of the Moon.

Yes, I’m talking about Apollo 11, the first manned landing on the Moon.

Two hours and forty minutes after the Lunar Module landed at the Sea of Tranquility, after a lengthy powering-down procedure and various check lists to make sure all systems were okay, Buzz Aldrin found a rare moment of quiet. Since Neil Armstrong had been chosen to take the first step onto the lunar surface and had the whole “what are you going to say?” thing weighing on his shoulders, Aldrin wondered how best he could celebrate the moment, and spent a decent amount of time searching for the perfect gesture. A few weeks before the launch, he came to a decision.

Eight months prior Apollo 8 became the first manned craft to fly around the Moon. On Christmas Eve, 1968, rounding the lunar far side, the three astronauts in the Command Module, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, took turns reading the opening verses of the Book of Genesis. NASA was still coping with the “controversy,” and Deke Slayton, head of the astronaut office, warned Aldrin against any overt broadcast of religious observance over the air.



While Armstrong was finishing up his tasks in the LM, Aldrin brought out a plastic bag from his personal pouch and removed a small flask of wine, a chalice, and some wafers, and set them down on a small ledge. In the one-sixth gravity the wine poured smoothly into the chalice; over the mike Aldrin asked for anyone listening to pause for a moment and give thanks in his or her own way. Then, reading his printed handwriting on a card he prepared on Earth, he spoke a few words from the Book of John:

I am the wine and you are the branches
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit
For you can do nothing without me

Aldrin then took the wine and the wafer. I do not know if Armstrong partook or not. I do not know if Aldrin suffered any repercussions for ignoring Slayton’s warning. I do not know if Aldrin is a Catholic and if the communion was liturgically valid. Nor do I care, really. What I really find amazing is that it was even done at all, whether considered a mere gesture or a valid sacrament. It gives me a certain, odd type of hope in mankind, it gives me what I suppose is a glimpse into that tiny and fragile part of us that is so cherished by God.


Source: A Man on the Moon (1994) by Andrew Chaikin, 204-205

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Raise Your Sights

Last night I was skimming through a little booklet on Christ, half-watching the TV, half-listening to the constant back-and-forth patter between my wife, my four-year-old, and my baby. I was in that zone – not The Zone – but that zone where you’re doing so many things at once all half-assed that you’re not really doing anything. In fact, it’d probably have been better for me to stop everything that I was doing and just pick something.

Part of being a hopper, I ’spose.

Then, something caught my eye on a page in that booklet:

Raise your sights!
Let My body and blood transform you!
There is so much I want to do through you!

Wow. Never before have three words stopped me cold. Or three sentences, for that matter.

Raise your sights. Let’s just focus on that sentence right now. According to this author, this is what Jesus is telling you or me, this very day. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, though I kinda think it is. After all, this verse from the Sermon on the Mount immediately came to mind:

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

So I think Christ wants us to strive to be the best we can be. Do our part, and He’ll do the rest. Naturally, that means raising your sights. And this resonated within me.

Why?

I think for the past six months I’ve kept my sights low. Instinctive and reactionary. Survival mode. Six months ago I was relatively healthy if a bit overstressed and overtaxed. Then, one morning at 4:15 AM my whole life changed. Six surgeries and three hospitals later, to add insult to injury, I lose my job. So for the past couple of months I’ve really just tried to stay out of trouble. No, let me amend that. I’ve tried to get as close to getting in trouble as I can, without actually getting into trouble. Understand?

Hardly raised sights. Just keeping my head low and hoping for a miracle.

If I did raise my sights, where would I be looking? What would I be looking at? That’s a personal question, but one I’m not afraid to answer.

First, Jesus Christ. Just as there are no athiests in foxholes, there are no lukewarm Christians in hospital beds. I let that new-found newly-strengthened spiritual part of me slide, and that should be my primary focus.

Second, my writing career. I have two complete novels and fifteen complete short stories, and I know the process I need to navigate to get them published. Why am I doing absolutely nothing to get my work out there? Why? Fear of rejection and embarrassment and all self-belittling will have to be set aside, if I am to keep my sights high.

Third, I need to get back into the grind. Yeah, it sucks to work, especially the only work that I can get since it’s the only work I’ve done over the past twenty years: cubicle work, paper pushing, number crunching. Trading my time for an hourly wage to make someone else richer while I have to beg to take off early to take my daughter to the doctor or plead my worth to a stranger to get a dollar-an-hour raise. But I need income, if only to keep the bills paid, a roof over my girls’ blonde heads, and the ten-year-old clunker running.

Raise your sights.

That’s the first step. That’s my part. I need a little bit of help with the rest, Lord.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Searching for a Small Poem

Kinda pressed for time and a little swamped, so I thought it a good time to post a short poem.

But which one?

I am not a poet but I am a (mild) fan of the art. Ray Bradbury advises writers of any age to read poetry, preferably on a daily basis. I try to, but I don’t always. I was skimming through some poems of Ezra Pound’s, but nothing seems to be calling out at the moment. Behind me is a stack of a half-dozen thick anthologies: Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Longfellow, Blake, but, nah, all that’s too highbrow at the moment. (I’m bingeing on those little bite-sized mini-chocolate bars while the wife and little ones are out – hey, it’s either that or down a couple of beers.)

So what to post?

Tempted to re-post on “Ulysses,” by Tennyson, hands-down my favorite. But what more could I possibly add without embarrassing myself? Best to just re-type it in to the blogging software without comment. But hey, that’s what I did a few days ago with a pared-down “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Hmm. A thought to skim through Whitman momentarily flashed through my brain, but I’m not in the mood to leap about the room praising glorious humanity and all that it is that makes me a man.

What the heck to post?

I really wish I liked Gerard Manley Hopkins. For a long time I thought I did. He was a Jesuit – and hey! I’m a Catholic – and I tried, really tried, to get in to the spirit of his work. But after awhile I just realized – and I hope not to sound blasphemous, no, I don’t want to intend this as blasphemous – but, I realized his poems are little but clever tongue-twisters. There, I said it.

But it still doesn’t help me. I need a neat little poem to post.

Oh! I have one. I remember, let’s see … way back in the early ’90s, must’ve been 1992, I’m going to say, because it was around the time I was at Seton Hall and I had my first solo apartment … I remember making a conscious decision to explore two areas: classical music, and poetry. As for the classical music, well, I posted a bit about that early in the history of this blog. As for the poetry, I went to my local library and, not knowing any better, borrowed two encyclopedic tomes – one on Carl Sandburg, one on Robert Frost.

Both poets are okay, but they don’t particularly move me. Well, let me rephrase and say they don’t particularly move me consistently. But I do remember liking one poem by Frost enough to photocopy it (and I’m not talking about “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” – a poem more overexposed than Barack Obama). That poem, without comment literary or ideological, is this:


U. S. 1946 King’s X

Having invented a new Holocaust,
And been the first with it to win a war,
How they make haste to cry with fingers crossed,
King's X--no fairs to use it anymore!


I like it. It’s short, simple, sweet. A nice contrast of childishness in the face of something monstrous and evil (again, intended without ideological bias one way or the other). Plus, back in those long-haired Les Paul days, the only CD you’d find on my stereo would be any one of the five or six of a very heavy [Christian] hard rock band called … King’s X.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Hellhound Project


[a small but possible deal-breaking spoiler …]


© 1975 by Ron Goulart


Ah, the dangers of re-reading those beloved books of youth.

When I was young and stupid and read for this simple, innocent love of hopping into a different universe for a couple of days, no matter how dystopic, I was riveted by this guy. Ron Goulart. Not exactly a household name, but over the years he’s managed to write almost two hundred books, mostly SF but some mysteries with movie and serial novelizations here and there. Synchronistically, he wrote the book based on the film Capricorn One which I just watched. He’s also known as the ghost writer for all those Bill Shatner SF books, but I haven’t read a single one of those.

In the 1970s, the four or five science fiction shelves at my local library seemed stocked with Ron Goulart books. There’s at least four of them I can sort-of visualize. All hardcover, all about 150 pages or so, all with extremely 1970s futuristic cover art: a combination of psychedelia and cut-and-paste graphic art. I read ’em all and loved ’em all. Since I now know they were a lightweight pastiche of Me-Generation social commentary, film noir gumshoe characterizations, and some light free-love-type stuff, with robot butlers and robot dogs and a corrupt America in decline, I realize I understood little of what I read. But I sure dug those robot butlers and robot dogs.

So, I found The Hellhound Project at my local library a few weeks ago and decided to read it for nostalgia’s sake.

Verdict: A quick read, but not a good one. As an adult, I found a hollow and shallow and ultimately shoulder-shrugging “who cares?” attitude towards this hellish wonderland that fascinated me as a kid.

Could be I had overly optimistic expectations going in. Probably one of the reasons I’m leery about re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Someone, I think it was Borges, said you could never read a poem the same way twice. The same goes for a book, I suppose. You can never recapture the magic. But I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that. As a film buff, I know you can certainly watch a movie more than once and each time come back with something new, something fresh, and even something greater. Try watching a Hitchcock, Orson Welles or even a John Wayne movie or, better yet, one of them ’50s SF classics two or three times and see if this doesn’t ring true.

Yeah, sometimes a re-read of an endearing book from youth can bring about the new, fresh, greater. I found this in my second go-round with The Silmarillion. Similarly with The Spinner, A Generation Removed, Red Planet, Conquerors From the Darkness, Lord Foul’s Bane, just to name a few off the top of my head, and even more so with the books and stories of Ray Bradbury. So, it’s not unreasonable to expect the magic again.

With The Hellhound Project, though, not so much.

Briefly, it tells the story of one Thad McIntosh, a down-on-his-luck drifter in a pre-Escape From New York Manhattan. An undercover revolutionary group recruits him to impersonate a cryogenically-frozen industrialist whose family business is developing an insidious weapon called the Hellhound for the corrupt American presidential administration. Thad must prove he is who he says he is while surviving what may or may not be assassination attempts to get to the bottom of this weapons project.

I really didn’t remember the premise of the book but I did remember its name and title, and that I was enamored with it around, oh, fifth grade or so. The Hellhound Project is an awesome name, even if you’re not a ten-year-old boy. Now I know what the word hellhound refers to, but back then it just sounded cool. As an adult I thought it was something like a robotic dog-like creature, with fangs dripping with some man-made poison, something that possibly flew, but it hunted you down relentlessly and mercilessly. (I even wrote a short story called XIKN twenty-five years later based on that vision.)

Suffice it to say that Thad ultimately finds himself a frantic target for the Hellhound.

I was disappointed to learn that this book, read by a ten-year-old, was basically aimed at a ten-year-old. Not always the case with the stuff I read as a youth. Everything kinda let me down. Not Goulart’s fault, per se. The book is good for what it is: a developed short story, written tightly and succinctly so that not a single unnecessary word is there. Ideas are put forward, but not to be explored, only to push the story further. It’s one of those works where it’s SF simply because that’s where the author wanted to put the story. It could’ve been written in other genres, too, I suppose. I found myself let down by what the hellhound actually was (just a bullet that was imprinted with your “brain patterns” so, once fired, it will get you, eventually).

All this is not to say I won’t re-read any further books I find by Goulart. Most of his ’70s work is out-of-print, and he’s prominently on my used book store finder’s list. But I hope the other books I track down, hellhound-like, will match up a little better with my rosy-colored memories from childhood.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Website Update

Just a little observation that popped into my mind in the shower yesterday …

Starting a blog, which I did back in March 2008, is like NASA in 1961 launching a man into orbit. Daunting, never-been-done-before, possibility of humiliation. Keeping a blog up and running and somewhat interesting over the course of the next sixteen months I liken to putting a man into orbit, like John Glenn. Same capsule, a little more effort and ingenuity required.

Starting a website, especially one that you want to be proud of and bring back regular (initially modest) financial return, is like landing a man on the Moon and bringing him back.

Those who understand the analogy will nod with sympathy; those who don’t will just have to wait a few weeks ...

Plus I have the Kennedyesque deadline of August 1 to get it up and running. If it was my full-time job, I could. But since my full-time job is to care for two young children and look for a full-time job, I may have to relax the Go Fever a bit. Maybe a week, certainly no longer. Better to get it up and running and tweak it as time goes on, than to fall into analysis paralysis and never even hold it up for the whole world to see.

That’s my meta-thought on the blog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Compassion

Just heard an interesting thought this morning by the Dalai Lama.

In one of his lectures he insisted that if we were to take our children, each and every one of them, and begin around the age of, say, five or so, to teach them how to meditate on compassion for one hour a week – that’s not even ten minutes a day –

To meditate on compassion for one hour a week –

For the rest of their childhood –


He believes passionately that within one generation, all

* wars
* crime
* physical abuse and violence
* mental abuse and violence

Would disappear.


What do you think?

Does that thought give you excitement, or do you merely shrug your shoulders?

Does that make you want to sit quietly somewhere for ten minutes and try to do this, or do you merely dismiss it because a foreign dude from a different religion in crazy robes said it.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Godwhale


By T. J. Bass, © 1974

What a pleasure it was to read this book! This is what good, solid SF is all about. Broadly speaking, it’s this: improbably characters that seem more real than the people you sit next to in your cubicle every day; societies that have morphed over the centuries that become either a warning for ours or a promise; an epic that spans over centuries, yet still manages to tell a single, unified story; intelligences that come in all sizes, shapes, and chemistries; unexpected twists and turns that still conform with the rules the author has set up; and a life-and-death tale that grips you and doesn’t let go.

I found most of that in The Godwhale.

On the surface, the novel seems to follow to many manifestations of Larry Dever over the course of several thousand years. In a bizarre accident brought on by a combination of greed and innocence, Larry is cut in half. Thanks to his society’s medical advances, he is able to recover and get about with the aid of a robotic lower half, complete with motor skills, kidney-replicating duties, and personality. But Larry is now unable to do that one thing that all men need to do, so, depressed, he opts for suspended animation, narrowly declining a berth on a ship to the stars.

He awakes in a dystopia – its name, “the Hive” says it all – and barely escapes with his life. How he does and who he meets sets up most of the novel and conforms to the criteria in my first paragraph. A whole slew of characters – Big Har, a “tweenwaller” (lives “between the walls” ie, outside the Hive’s grasp); ARNOLD, a genetically superior warrior created from the oldest, hardiest existing DNA, Larry’s; a society of underwater dwellers who live off the stolen fruits of the Hive’s harvesting machines; a Rorqual Maru, the Godwhale itself, a cyborg plankton rake in search of mythical Man to serve again. A whole slew of secondary characters, human and machine, compliment this cast.

The novel quickly settles in to a conflict between the Hive and the Benthics, those underwater-evolved hunter-gatherers. Simply put, the Hive destroys or assimilates anything and everything non-Hive. Eventually Larry and his friends all converge onto the Rorqual and play the decisive role in the struggle. If the novel has a fault at all, it is that the outcome is a little too assured; I would have preferred to see greater pain and greater difficulties in the overcoming. Still, though, the inherent nastiness of the Hive was enough to keep the pages turning: those bastards must have it coming to them, and I wanted to see it through.

In an earlier post I suggested, not having any knowledge of T. J. Bass, that the man came from either the medical or science fields. His writing, while not authentically hard SF, certainly comes close. The man knows his subjects. The descriptions of the medical advances and treatments, which the book is full of, were downright convincing, to the point where often I’d say to myself, “Man, I gotta write like that.” Turns out Bass is a doctor with a solid background in genetics, which explains everything. Pushing 80, I don’t believe he’s currently active. In fact, after a period of short-story writing in the late 60s, The Godwhale was published in 1974 (nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel), as a sequel to his only other book, Half Past Human. Both that source novel as well as the short stories will be put on my list, and eagerly sought for among the old yellowing paperbacks of the various used book stores I frequent.

Grade: A.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20, 1969


Forty years ago men from Earth first landed on the Moon. Over the next three-and-a-half years, five additional successful missions followed. At the time Armstrong and Aldrin left footprints on the lunar surface man had only been in space for a little over eight years. And the impetus for their lunar stroll, the single motivating words that awakened the superhuman efforts of intellect and courage, was a single speech from President John F. Kennedy a little over seven years earlier. I have no doubts in my mind that this is the crowning tangible achievement of mankind.

I just read one of those scale analogies that really brought the accomplishment out to me quite clearly. Imagine the Earth as the size of a basketball. Before Apollo, the highest altitude we attained in a spacecraft, Gemini 11, was 850 miles (the shuttle can operate between 120 and 600 miles in space). This is about 1 inch off that basketball.

In this analogy, the Moon is about the size of a baseball … 23 feet away. That’s right. Going to the Moon is thus over 275 times farther than the farthest we had gone up to that point. The task involved lifting three men and two spacecraft to Earth orbit, injecting them into a course for the Moon, braking at the Moon to enter lunar orbit, separating the two spacecraft, descending to the surface in one vehicle, exploring for a set amount of time, lifting off the lunar surface in part of the lunar lander, re-entering the command capsule, leaving lunar orbit for a course to the Earth, and entering Earth’s atmosphere at just the proper angle to avoid burning up on re-entry or bouncing off into the void of space.

Only about 175,000 separate things that could go wrong in that plan.

And all done with primitive computers. Computers that had to be constructed, essentially from scratch, to do the jobs the nerds with the glasses and slide rules didn’t have time to do (though they found the time, if only to double-check the computers). Several times I heard the oft-repeated observation that there’s more RAM in someone’s cell phone nowadays than there was in the lander that brought the astronauts down to the lunar surface and back up safely to the command module. (I am currently trying to find the most accurate manifestation of that statement.)

But the thing is, it worked. It worked and was repeated five times. True, Apollo 13 did not reach her objective, but her crew returned safely to Earth thanks to the incredible ingenuity at Mission Control. Aside from the tragic deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in a fire during a simulation test on the launch pad, not a single astronaut died during the actual implementation of the Project Apollo mission objections. That is amazing.

Twelve men walked on the Moon. Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard, Mitchell, Scott, Irwin, Young, Duke, Cernan, and Schmitt. As of this date, July 20, 2009, three of them have passed on to explore a different universe: Conrad, Shepard, and Irwin. And the youngest of the remaining is Duke, who’ll be 74 in a couple of months.

To paraphrase a quote from Arthur C. Clarke (which I am still hunting down): The amazing thing is not that we sent men to the moon to walk her surface. No, the amazing thing is that we stopped sending them …

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Quick One

Just a quick update …

Spent the weekend at my aunt and uncle’s place in upstate New York and had a well-needed refreshing and relaxing time. The Little One spent most of yesterday making gigantic bubbles and learning badminton, displaying a good forearm swing that she had to have inherited from her Ma. Apache was well-behaved and charming, for the most part, and had plenty of relatives to dote over her. The wife was out and about chatting up everyone, and may actually had a drink or two! The burgers were great, the bugs were beastly, and the weather was superb.

I, for my part, am just about “no maintenance.” I found an unused room in the place to set up camp and disappeared for a couple blocks of a couple hours. It may or may not have been called the reading room, but I certainly made it so. Finished The Hellhound Project, story, reminiscences, and review to follow early in the week, and put away close to a hundred pages in A Man On The Moon, perhaps the Bible of the Apollo missions. I am incredibly swept up in it, to the exclusion of just about everything else, everything else that doesn’t have to do with the well-being of my children or ice cream. More on that, later.

I go to the doctor’s office late tomorrow afternoon for my first follow-up post-surgery. I expect everything to go well. There’s been no side-effects; nothing to concern the doctor with, truthfully. Will report on that later, too, if I think it necessary or interesting.

Busy week. C has a demanding couple of days for her work, and that trickles down to me. I’m trying to keep the Little One somewhat beneficially occupied during this middle part of the summer, as well as eke out some time for Project X (my new dramatic term for my website) with the daunting and nearing deadline of August 1. Also want to start some type of workouts, provided the cardiologist green-lights it, possibly some weightlifting combined with a more consistent walking schedule. Oh, and I need to keep away from the ice cream; my weight’s shot up 5-7 lbs this month alone. But it’s been a hot summer.

Have to watch the girls now as C is getting us some dinner. Hasta mañana, amigos …

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Capricorn One

Watched the movie over two days while the Little One was napping. A true throwback to my youth. I remember parts of the movie, certain scenes here and there, with complete and vivid recollection, while huge spans of the film seemed completely new to me.

Released in the summer of ’78, I probably first saw it on cable TV the following year. Just after Star Wars and Close Encounters, but before Superman, The Empire Strikes Back and Alien. What more could a huge SF geek like me and my friends want for summer viewing? You may remember the set-up, even a few of the “iconic” shots. Basically the movie is about a faked Mars landing, and the image I have in mind is of an astronaut, decked out in full Apollo regalia, saluting a motionless United States flag amidst the red-orange hues of the Martian sunset. And on the periphery of the rocky Aresian landscape, bright lights and movie cameras and men with clipboards and cue cards.

How did the movie fare to LE-as-an-adult? All right. Not the best thing I’ve ever watched but certainly not the worst. Huge, massive plot holes capable of bending light. A really, really bad acting performance by OJ Simpson (who noticeably improved to Oscar caliber for his final performance sixteen-or-so years later). Bad science, such as using the Apollo lunar lander (the bug-like LEM) to descend to the Martian surface (the moon has no atmosphere; Mars does, so a lander would have to be designed radically different). But, darn it, I found it easy to suspend disbelief and get into the swing of things.

Some of the acting was really great. Hal Holbrook, who was in every movie in the 1970s, is an enigma: a nerdy milquetoast who can play a very subtle and menacing villain. Sam Waterson as a pretty funny astronaut, with some throwaway one-liners you might miss. Elliot Gould, despite playing Elliot Gould, is believable as a down-on-his-luck reporter slowly uncovering the conspiracy. Hey, it ain’t Ingmar Bergman, but for what it is, it’s good.

But the best part of the movie is James Brolin. Yeah, I know, I know. Nowadays he’s Mr. Barbara Streisand. He’s a big limousine lib. And he portrayed Ronald Reagan as a senile old fool (or evil old fool, I forget which). Forget all that. In the ’70s, he was cool. There was no one cooler, I used to think as a boy. He was also in a really cheesy but otherwise excellent The Car, and he was cool in that movie as a long-haired motorcycle-riding lawman. My brother and I watched The Car at least a dozen times or more. I liked him immensely in Capricorn One, as the commanding officer of the Mars mission and unwilling participant who decides to do something about it. He takes a lot of abuse, eats a rattlesnake, lets a scorpion crawl over his face, beats a bad guy with a crowbar, and has to hold on for dear life on the wing of an airplane to get to freedom, his viselike grip forcing blood out between his fingers. In the end, he’s the hero, just what a twelve-year-old boy needs to look up to at that stage in his life.


Pretty decent conspiracy flick with pretty good acting. Some genuinely tense parts, some effectively artsy parts, some really chuckle-worthy parts. And there’s also the game you can play trying to spot the goofs and gaffes, which even someone half-paying attention will catch. Best of all, when it’s over, you can spend, oh, maybe a minute, maybe two, and become fully convinced of the impossibility and the improbability of the government even coming a tenth of a percent towards accomplishing something as complex as a faked Martian (read: Lunar) landing.


PS ... Just discovered the movie is scheduled to be remade, with shooting to start in a couple of months. Bleh. It’ll suck.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Kursk

Last weekend we had beautiful, late-spring-ish weather, made more lovely due to the odd fact that it rained just about every day in June. So, to celebrate and get into the swing of summer things, I did a massive amount of yardwork, cleaned off the deck, fixed the grill, and went to the library for a bunch of reading materials to peruse out-of-doors.

One of which was a book on the Kursk which I skimmed/read in two days.

It’s the second book I’ve read on the somewhat unusual topic (for me) of submarine disasters. About four years ago I read The Death of the Thresher by Norman Polmar in an equally quick amount of time. That one was about America’s first (of only two) nuclear sub disasters. The one I read last weekend, Cry from the Deep by Ramsey Flynn, is about the Russian sub Kursk, which sank in August 2000. Twenty-three survivors of the initial two torpedo explosions died over a three-day period 340 feet under the sea while the Russian government did little to save them.





I remember the incident vividly. I was working the second shift (12-9 pm) at Marriott Desktop Support that summer. Though we supported Marriott’s global operations round-the-clock, calls tended to drop off after 6 or 7 every day, so the three of us at the help desk spent a lot of time surfing the web. When the story broke that week, I followed it every day, trying to get as much information as I could from a whole variety of sources. And one of those sources was one of the guys I worked with.

Ron was an ex-Navy man and spent twenty years in the submarine service. Still youthful in his late-forties, he was living off his pension and doing the desktop support thing as kind of a paid hobby. He sure had some interesting stories to tell of his time under the waves. Once, he said, a sub he was on, entering a port in the US (I forget exactly where) hit something hard enough to cause damage. The problem was, nobody knew what the heck they hit. They had all the underwater charts for the area, and nothing was supposed to be there. But something was. To that day no one knew what this submarine hit. A foreign sub perhaps? Ron was mum.

But to get back to the Kursk. The story horrifies me. I can’t think of a worse death, I suppose, than to die in any of the couple hundred ways possible in a nuclear submarine. As a matter of fact, I would never, ever, ever go in one, despite my fascination. There’s an old World War II sub docked in twenty feet of water a couple towns over that I plan to take my daughter to see; that’s about as far as I’ll go.

Now, I skimmed the book last week, and the incident itself is almost nine years old, so if I leave out a detail or speak out of turn, forgive me. But it seems the ship was a death trap even before the events of August 12, 2000. Russia at that time was going through an internal crisis of sorts. Putin was the new president, or dictator, or whatever the true position is, but cold economics had forced the Russian navy to mothball and neglect to a fairly great extent large portions of its fleet over the preceding decade or so. One part of the navy that bore the brunt of this neglect was the stockpile of torpedoes.

Most of the Russian torpedoes were constructed to utilize a particular kind of fuel system which gave them the ability to run faster and longer than other types of underwater missiles. It was also cheaper than other types of fuel. Cheaper always brings with it a downside, and in this case, the fuel oxidizers tended to corrode gaskets and valves in the torpedoes after a certain period of time. You can see where this is heading.

Financial setbacks also resulted in undeveloped search-and-rescue vehicles, training, and programs. The Kursk had a sister ship which could not be used in any rescue or search-and-find capacities because it lay in dry dock, much of it cannibalized to keep the Kursk herself running.

There were actually two explosions which did in the Kursk during a highly anticipated military exercise in the Barents Sea. The first was caused by leaking oxidizer in one “problematic” torpedo that was to be demonstrated. The explosion destroyed something like the forward quarter of the submarine, killing dozens of men including the captain and all those in the command center. Temperatures reached into the thousands of degrees.

The survivors knew they had one chance. The Kursk had a built-in escape module at the center of the ship as part of the conning tower. Over the next two minutes more than forty men lined up in the cramped, claustrophobic quarters to await entry into this module, built to hold over a hundred men. But the hatch could not be opened.

Two minutes and fifteen seconds after the first blast, the remaining torpedoes exploded. A wall of molten metal at supersonic speeds slammed backwards into the sub, killing those waiting men instantly. The remaining twenty-three crewmen headed to the aft compartment as the sub began its dive to the ocean bottom. There was still a chance, perhaps …

At the very rear of the sub was a hatch where men in pressure suits could attempt an escape to the surface. True, the bends could kill or injure them, but that was a risk some were willing to take, but were overruled by the majority. An emergency beacon was released, or thought to have been, to signal to the world their position. However, such beacons were known to be welded to the hull to prevent them from falling off and becoming a drag during maneuvers.

The aft compartment housing the turbine for the propeller, which had a tendency to fill with seawater when the ship was not moving. There was no power so the bilge pumps were not working. Water at 38 degrees filled the dark chamber as the men rested to conserve oxygen. The horror that must have gone through their minds … A few wrote notes to loved ones. In fact, one such note, as well as the fact that many were wearing pressurized diving suits, immediately proved to the world that Russian authorities lied in stating that all perished immediately in the explosions.

Sometime around the third day a fire broke out in the compartment, killing the surviving members of that group of twenty-three.

Finally, the Russian government acquiesced to aid from foreign rescue forces. The corruption, ineptitude, and culture of CYA in the Russian high command was a thoroughly disgusting undercurrent throughout the whole book. May the Lord have mercy on the souls of those evil and cowardly men.


However, Putin was true to a promise to survivors to raise the Kursk no matter what the cost. All but two bodies were eventually recovered and buried with full honors. For a brief moment the Russian people were exposed to a government who fully revealed all its mistakes and responsibilities for its failures to the young men and dedicated officers sworn to protect her.

But it was fleeting. Putin resumed harsh, Soviet-era crackdowns on Russian media shortly after.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mucha Lucha

Hello.

Mucha lucha going on this week. Just a sampling: car stalled out, resulting in an $840 repair bill. Took the Little One to the park for train and carousel rides, took her to a zoo, and to a Kids Club Free Movie (my head’s still aching). Put in a couple more hours with the new website idea; alternating between excitement and despair. Continuing to eat like I’ll live forever, so I basically have no energy as my blood sugar rollercoasters throughout the day. Phone tag with doctors and dentists. Applied to three jobs. Wife worked late two nights so I was stuck with a four-year-old and a nine-month-old testing their old man mercilessly.

Ah. Life is crazy. Life is good.

This blog has kinda taken a low-priority turn. But I have so much good material I want to write about! In true hopper style, the topics zigzag in unusual and unpredictable ways. I want to write a bit about that Russian sub, the Kursk, that sank in August 2000. Finished The Godwhale, which was so awesome it deserves a truly worthy review. I’m in the process of stealth reading THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK I’VE EVER READ, so I have some thoughts on that. Want to reveal a bit more about the new website, too. Found some interesting poems from that batsh_t-crazy Ezra Pound. Debating whether to make some politico-religious comments.

It’s like the opposite of writer’s block. I have so much I want to write that I’m stressing over doing any of it any justice.

Well, I’ll pick one and write a thousand words tonight for tomorrow’s posting. Also have to take care of some necessities: children’s laundry and balancing the checkbook. And my favorite TV show is on tonight! Plus a hot bath is waiting me, as is at least two really interesting books. I’m indecisive as to what SF paperback to read next, but that’s a fun decision to make.

We’re planning on spending the weekend away, so I’ll have to write some things to post in advance. And a weekend away always entails logistics that make me appreciate the men behind the scenes during Napoleon’s marches across the European continent: laundry, toiletries, packing for two adults and two children, cleaning the house, etc, etc, etc. Ah well.

Life is crazy / good.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Slavery and Freedom

...

What does the slave want?

Not his freedom.

What the slave most desires is a more comfortable slavery.

Freedom is frightening.

...


CODA:

No one is ever really free.
We all have to serve someone or something.
Who or what do you choose to serve?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

GurnblanstonSr

This post is just a test.

Nothing to see here; please move one. Nothing to see here.

Just a test. Please pardon the inconvenience, and please return tomorrow. Interesting posts on deck, from the mind of an incorrigible hopper.

Oh, and Gurn Blanston is Steve Martin’s real name, according to Steve Martin.

GurnblanstonSr is an unrelated little experiment I’m running.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Monday, July 13, 2009

There Will Be Blood

Just a short note on the movie. I don’t feel up to a full review; it left me with mixed feelings. Those of you in the cultural know (which I’m not always, proudly, by the way, since vast segments of our contemporary cultural is crap), will know the phrase “I drink your milkshake,” which by its very bizarre-ness has morphed into a life of its own. Case in point is the SNL skit a year or two ago where Bill Hader and Amy Poehler, as Daniel Plainview and his adopted son H. W. go around to various delis and eating establishments to film his Food Network TV show, “I Drink Your Milkshake.” The movie is also noteworthy as Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor award at the Oscars for his portrayal of Mr. Plainview.

In a sentence or two, the movie spans about thirty years in the life of Plainview, an “oil man” at the turn of the 20th century, from an impoverished but unstoppable single man operation to a mansioned Rockefellerian millionaire. Suffice it to say that Day-Lewis is absolutely phenomenally riveting as Plainview; when he’s on the screen you can’t look elsewhere or think of anything else. The character is filled with flaws as well as admirable characteristics (admirable in the sense that “America” defines them as such: determination, drive, ambition, an unquenchable thirst for wealth, the individual over the collective, etc). There’s a powerful conflict between two equally (potentially) insane characters, and like all excellent movies, you will be hard pressed to guess the outcome.

The cinematography is simply gorgeous; the characters all look appropriately grimy and stinky. The dialogue’s well-written, and, aside from an odd feel to the final twenty minutes of the film, the pacing and plot is superior to the vast majority of the product Hollywood puts out. I’m ambivalent because I think the final twenty minutes ruin the movie – unless there’s something there that I just don’t get, and maybe need to see it again. But the first two hours is easily worth the price of admission.

It’s strange because I can listen to a Daniel Plainview speech over and over again. The cadence, the confidence, the barely-disguised menace just below the surface, the promise of shared wealth. I suppose he’s not unique in the history of American – this type of man, that is – nor, I suppose, in the history of the world. I have never met anyone of his type, and I suppose that’s a good thing. But because of men like Daniel Plainview I can go out in a car and drive anywhere I want, can go to a machine and withdraw cash to pay for it, can go into a house I normally could not afford and switch on a machine that can enable me to write these words for anyone in the world with access to electricity to read.

See here for info on the flick.

See here for Ebert’s review.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Because It’s So Good, and I Can

...

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
Its edge at one more victim gained thereby.



If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed; neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.



Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; so a fool finds mirth
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes; within a rood
Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.



What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.



There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
to view the last of me, a living frame
for one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew, “Child Roland to the Dark Tower came.”


- Robert Browning, inspired from a line from King Lear

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Operation Grill



Okay, so I inherited this grill when we bought our house in 2004. It’s this simple, utilitarian thing that’s screwed right into our deck, really just a big chamber for coals that’s heated up from the gas line that goes up into it. The line goes under the deck, under the ground, and into our basement laundry room, where it connects with the gas clothes dryer. It’s rusted, creaky, cobwebbed, and a mottled mixture of black and gray. It looks like it was smelted around the time Chester A. Arthur was president.

But it was a selling point for the house. A minor one, mind you, since I’ve never grilled nor am I a big hamburger-and-hot-dog guy, and we only eat red meat like twice a month. But we figured, hey, there’s a grill, and it’s screwed right into the deck. Can’t be bad, right?

Well, it worked the first summer we lived here. I used it twice. First time was cautiously optimistic. Made some burgers, and they came out all right. Feeling a bit cocky, I tried my hand at some chicken legs. The second time around, however, I was unable to get the darn things fully cooked. By the time I got the raw centers to a dull pink the outsides were a crusty charcoal black. Stubborn, I insisted on eating one and almost lost a tooth.

I was told after the fact that chicken legs should be boiled before grilled. Whether this is true or not I have not tested, as I am scarred when it comes to grilling chicken.

September with her crisp bite in the air came round, and my first daughter was born. I put the cover over the grill and forgot about it. Well, the cover was metaphorical; the grill sat exposed on my deck for the next nine months or so in rain, sleet, hail, snow, and sun.

Next summer I tried to grill and it wouldn’t fire up. What the heck? I remember scratching my head. Maybe I should throw another match in. I made sure the dial on the bottom was set to “HI” – not a greeting but a setting – and tossed another match in. Still nothing. What the heck? Oh wait, I already said that. A third match revealed to me what I already knew. The grill was dead.

Wait! Maybe I turned off the gas from that valve in the laundry room. I ran downstairs, saw the switch was off (it leaks slightly if left on – do you think I should call PSEG about that?) and turned it back on. Went back out, rubbing my hands briskly together, sniffed for gas around the grill, and tossed yet another match in.

Still nothing.

A month later, nothing again.

Oh well. I shut the hatch and forgot about it until the following summer.

Again, no response from the grill. Oh well. It’s now deck decoration. Occasionally guy friends would come over and, beers in hand, would walk over and discuss the grill. The way guys do. And I’d just shrug and say it doesn’t work.

I have two friends who regarded this as some kind of sacrilege to the male spirit. On coincidence they were just over my house the same day last month, and the grill became the focus of their attention. It could not survive their intense and overwhelming assault. First, the two beehive metropolises that were thriving on the inside of the iron lid were dosed heavily with insect napalm. Then the gas lines were inspected inscrutably. Soon it was disassembled, scrubbed with WD-40 and toothbrushes, spider webs and dead insect carcasses removed and everything put back together. Satisfied that everything was in order with the old girl, the dial was set to “HI” and a match tossed in.

It fired up!

I bought pizza and beer for the boys as a reward. No, we didn’t grill that night. Why not? Well, the thing was a disgusting mess. Masses of black goo caked the grill. Ash and things-I-don’t-want-to-know had been baked onto the charcoal and the sides. Flakes from paint, I guess, were hanging off the inside of the lid. Dirt – dirt! – there was so much dirt on the bottom of this metal tub that I expected a colony of mushrooms to be growing inside. So it needed a real thorough cleaning before we really used it.

I’ll get around to it, I told my wife. A month went by. The only thing that happened to the grill was that the wooden handle – literally a wooden handle: a nineteen-inch dowling that looked as if it was a cut part of a broom handle – thoroughly rotted by time and the elements, split in half when I raised the lid for an impromptu inspection.

Damn. Now I’d have to test my mettle. I’d have to replace that handle. The job was too minor to ask my buddies to help me out. No, this was something I had to do myself. I had to face myself, my fears, my insecurities. I had to be able to look at those hazel eyes in the mirror.

Hmm. The first thing I did was remove the withered remains of the old handle. Unfortunately, the four-inch screws holding it in had rusted shut, and broke apart during this stage of Operation Grill. Another setback. Fortunately, I am a pack rat and have in my garage a pail of something like six thousand old nails, screws, nuts, bolts, springs, outlets, outlet covers, etc, etc, etc. With the Little One my constant shadow (she being the H. W. to my Daniel Plainview during this whole project), we went to this pail and I was able to find two similarly rusted but intact screws that could replace the old ones. I found two nuts to match. Then I went to the kitchen sink and, careful not to drop them down the drain, washed screws, nuts, and these two one-inch tubes that keep the wooden handle from touching the hot grill. Okay. First phase accomplished.

Yesterday we went to Home Depot for another handle. I hate Home Depot. For one, I never know where to find anything. I always have to ask someone, and that makes me feel stupid ’cause half the time they ask me a follow-up question that I have no answer to. So I usually try to find a woman employee to direct my questions to. Ask me how that affects my male self-image. And try to get someone to help you at Home Depot – it’s like they’re trained to head the other way when you make eye contact with them from a distance. Or maybe it’s just me.

So I’m at Home Depot, hating every minute of it. H. W. is tailing me, and I’m trying to make sure she doesn’t slice a finger open on a power tool display or something. Luckily, I manage to find a pile of short small pieces of wood that might make a good handle. They’re rectangular, instead of broom-handle-shaped, and a little on the long side, but I think it just might work. Besides, I’ve been in the store all of ten minutes and I’m beginning to hyperventilate. So we buy the piece of wood and high-tail it out of there.

Get home. It’s a beautiful day, good for home repair, I note as I get out my tool box (which for some reason smells of baby vomit). I set up a tent for H. W. to play in, bring out a boom box and put on some Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now the first problem rears its head. The piece of wood I bought is twenty-six inches long. The old handle was nineteen. Hmm. It looked smaller in the store, perhaps it grew during the ride home? I weigh the option of having two inches of handle extend further past each side of the grill. Aesthetically displeasing, but still functional. I’d do it, but the wife won’t settle for it. I need to cut it.

I don’t have a saw.

I thought I did. Me and H. W. search the garage, the basement, then the garage and basement a second time. Nope. No saw. I weigh my options. Brother who’s a mechanic. Stepfather who has a wood shop in his basement. But really, like calling my two grill buddies, it’s such a minor thing I need to do this for myself. I’ll have to go back to the Mouth of Hell and buy a saw.

The rest of yesterday I spent cleaning the darn thing. Remembering how my buddies disassembled it (okay, that’s a lie, I wasn’t paying any attention back then so I’m winging it now), I take it apart, cleaning off each piece thoroughly, letting everything air dry, and putting everything back in its place. I test it out by turning it on to “HI” and tossing a match in. Nothing. Oh s***. Wait! Forgot to turn the gas line back on. Run downstairs, turn the switch, come back out on the deck, toss a match in, and it fires up! Yeah, I have no handle on it so I have to close it with a hammer and a wrench, but I manage to keep my fingers and my daughter unburnt. The family has burgers that night, and we eat out on the deck in the beautiful summer twilight.

Me and H. W. hit Home Depot again, early this morning. Panic rises in me as I circle the store once, twice, three times unable to find a simple hand saw. I can find everything else, including new grills. I resign myself to asking someone. The first three salespeople scurry away before I can get within vocal range. Frustrated, I’m about to flee – maybe the local town hardware store could give me more sympathetic help – but what do I see right in front of my eyes but saws! Hand saws! I buy the smallest one for $9.95 and run out of the store, H. W. firmly in tow.

We get home and I tease my wife saying it’ll be no problem because I know the old expression “Measure once, cut twice.” Surprisingly I’m able to saw the darn piece of wood in one shot. Good. Almost too good. I wait for someone’s other shoe to drop. Proceeding slowly, I measure where the screw holes in the grill correspond to the handle and screw them in. It looks like everything’s falling into place until I realize my new screws are something like a tenth of a millimeter too wide for the existing holes in the grill. Argh! But I don’t care at this point. I take a fat screw driver and wedge them into the grill’s screw holes, forcing the holes wider and wider, metal scrapings falling onto the charcoals. I’m amazed to see my desperate tactic worked. Five minutes later, the handle is in place.

Oh my gosh! I replaced the handle on my ancient grill, and did it all myself! I feel like those NASA technicians who figured out how to get Apollo 13 back from the moon.

I bring the wife and children out to marvel at my feat of engineering. They’re all smiles, very appreciative. The Little One, my H. W., says, shyly, “Daddy, you did a good job.” I’m still smiling as she walks back into the house, then slips and falls.

She’s soaked with water. The downstairs toilet overflowed.

Nooooo!



[Note: the grill pictured at the beginning of this post is NOT my grill, though it’s just about as dirty as mine was …]

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vacation Recap

Well, the five-day vacation is over. Picked up the girls at the airport yesterday around 5 pm. While their flight down to South Carolina was pleasant, on time, and without a hitch, the returning one was a nightmare. Over an hour delay leaving Savannah airport, a nine-month-old not on board with the program, and an extremely rude passenger in the seat in front of them. Due to heavy traffic at Newark, they had to circle for over an hour before landing. My wife’s ready to throw up from walking up and down the aisle with a crying baby while this plane is making tight loops at 300 miles per hour.

But I treated them as best I could. I negotiated the rush-hour traffic on the way home, stopped for take-out burritos and ice cream sandwiches, unloaded the car at home and brought all the baggage to upstairs bedrooms. The house was clean, the kitchen sink empty, all the bed linens laundered, and three-quarters of my honey-do list done. Not bad.

They had a great time visiting her folks. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperative. Fireworks were canceled due to heavy rain. And it seemed a thunderstorm blew by every afternoon, giving them no reason to head to the beach. They spent their mornings at the community pool instead. The Little One was spot on wonderful with the exception of a meltdown that wasn’t entirely her fault and an accidental spill-of-red-wine on the carpet. Patch was excellent at the beginning of the week but her behavior declined as the days went by. My in-laws are architects who designed their home; it’s a concrete-and-glass type of thing, so those piercing shout-slash-cries of the littlest of little ones easily must have made for very sore ears very soon.

For my part, I had a good five days. I would grade them, in terms of accomplishing things, something like this: A+, B-, C-, B+, B+. The C- is because one day I felt a bit under the weather (sore throat and dizziness) and just loafed around the house, flopping from bed to couch to tub in a series repeated about a dozen times. I didn’t eat too well while the ladies were away, though. But I did manage three walks, and they felt good. I did five hours’ work on the website idea, put away close to 150 pages of The Godwhale, completed one whole peripheral library book, and enjoyed a couple of movies: Signs, The Amityville Horror, Tora! Tora! Tora!, There Will Be Blood (“I drink YOUR milkshake!”), and The Rocker with Rainn Wilson. I also wrote just under 3,000 words for “Bruegel,” a weird-story-in-development, which is impressive though I was aiming for 5,000 words (1,000 a day).

Oh, by the way, woke up last night at exactly 3:15 am! Scared the living heck out of me. Went to the bathroom and almost expected to see two glowing eyes watching me through the window …

Much to do today. C is technically still on vacation, so she’ll be floating around all day, decompressing. We have both the girls, too, so it’ll be like a Saturday. I’m planning on taking Litte One with me to Home Depot to get some supplies to fix the grill out on the deck (keep your fingers on the 9 and 1 buttons on the phone!). Perhaps some burgers later tonight.

All things considered, a positive recharge of the batteries. Not bad at all.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SF Synchronicity

One reason I enjoy SF is all the esoteric trivia and useless facts that get absorbed into this mushy cerebellum somehow connect up in weird and interesting ways. “Synchronicity,” I believe the term is, coined in the early 20th century by psychologist Carl Jung. I envision some invisible ethereal realm, definitely Platonic, in which these ideas inexplicably exist, awaiting to be captured or encapsulated by our finite minds on some higher dimension we cannot have direct experience.

No, I am not stoned.

I do believe this, though not in any particularly thought-out or well-developed system.

Anyway, I’m reading this very, very good SF book, The Godwhale. And as I’m reading, I’m absorbing a lot of this esoteric trivia and useless facts that you’ll find in any well-written work written by a well-read writer. (alliteration!) Mr. Bass, who I still have not researched for my review, not having finished the novel just yet, knows his stuff well enough to convince me he knows his stuff. There’s a lot of medical jargon thrown about, things from surgical terms to biochemistry, which makes me think either Bass is a scientist-writer or doctor-writer, or that his major hobby must be reading medical journals. But more interesting to me is that, since most of Godwhale takes place on and under the ocean, there’s a lot of sea science thrown in.

There’s a lot of discussion about the bends in the novel (where it’s called the “pops”), that painful and potentially deadly situation that occurs when nitrogen bubbles into the bloodstream if a diver depressurizes too quickly (as in rushing to the surface from a deep dive). This triggered a memory in me: I researched all this stuff almost a decade ago when I wrote a short story called, vividly enough, “The Bathysphere.”

I flicked on the dusty old laptop and searched through my ancient word docs – all 400-plus of them – and found my notes on, let’s call it “sea science” for lack of any particular theme or direction. Got them from a neat little book I read entitled The Eternal Darkness.

Want to hear a couple of tidbits? Who knows, they may be the questions to tomorrow’s answers on Jeopardy …

- Every 33 feet you descend under water, the pressure doubles. At 33 feet below the surface, you’re at 2 atmospheres. At 300 feet, you’re at 10 atmospheres.

- An “atmosphere,” that is, the pressure of the air pressing down on you, is 15 pounds per square inch at sea level. You don’t feel it because you’re body is built to withstand such pressure. But if you descended to 300 feet below the surface, you’d start to feel it, as it is now 150 pounds per square inch of pressure.

- For most of the history of mankind, we’ve only descended to about a maximum depth of 100 feet. Think of all that undersea splendor, hidden from our eyes!

- In the 19th century we started to reach depths of about 500 feet. Remember those old divers with the iron helmets and the air tubes attached to them, with weights on their feet to help them descend? Here’s where the bends start their unwelcome knocking at the door of Scientific Advancement.

- Bathyspheres begin reaching greater and greater depths during the early 20th century, reaching significantly greater depths but still only in the low thousands of feet.

- The greatest depth in the ocean is the Mariana Trench, a couple hundred miles off the coast of Japan. It’s 35,800 feet deep. That’s over 6,000 feet deeper than Mount Everest is high.

- The average depth of the ocean, though, is about 12,500 feet.

- The average temperature at the bottom of the ocean is about 4 degrees above freezing, or 36 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s cold!

- Not only is it cold, but it’s dark. Pitch black. Due to the properties of water and the scattering ability of particles within the water, light does not reach much further down than a couple tens of feet. So don’t forget a flashlight.

- Nuclear subs can only reach a maximum depth of about 1,500 feet. This surprised me; I thought they went down farther. But again, it’s that pressure that stops them from going further, past “crush depth.”

- The pressure at 1,500 feet is about 45 atmospheres, or 675 pounds per square inch.

And so on.

Now the circle is going to be complete. Reading The Godwhale brought me to digging out my notes from a book I read in 2002, which now, in turn, is bringing me to a short story I wrote in 2003 using all these bits of trivia and knowledge about the sea. I, who have never been more than twenty feet or so off the shore in the ocean.

I think I’ll pull it out and read “The Bathysphere” before I go get my girls at the airport this afternoon. Maybe a review in the next couple of days ...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Entrepreneurial Mindsets

There are two mistakes an entrepreneur can make; two faulty mindsets that will do nothing but guarantee failure. *

The first is FIRE! READY! AIM!

This is the mindset of the man who doesn’t do all his homework. He’s got a great idea (or at least thinks he does) and immediately runs with it. Maybe not all the way to the bank, at least not yet, and maybe not straight to the poorhouse, either. But I think it’s obvious that this mindset isn’t the most efficient one to hold if you value your time and your money.

Ever hear the old cliché, “By failing to plan, you’re planning to fail”? It describes this mindset, and it’s true.

The second is READY! AIM! READY! AIM! READY! AIM! etc, etc, etc …

This is almost the complete opposite of the first mindset, a hundred-n-eighty degree shift. Here you do too much homework. As a matter of fact, homework is really all you do. Instead of running all the way to the bank, the poorhouse, or some destination between, you’re not even leaving the starting gate! Similarly, this mindset is as inefficient as the first one in terms of your valuable time and money. Some would hold even less so, since you don’t have feedback to work with as to the efficacy of your idea / business plan.

Ever hear of the phrase, “analysis paralysis”? I’m the poster boy for it.

I’m trying to set up a couple of niche websites to make some money. Not looking to become an overnight millionaire; I’m realistic and practical. But I do see it as an opportunity at making something doing something I quite enjoy. The first mindset, the Fire Ready Aim mindset, scares me a bit, but I really don’t have much to lose at this stage of the game. I’m much more wary of getting stuck in the Ready Aim Ready Aim Etc loop. However, I got several ticking clocks, all constantly ticking and tocking and counting down to various zero hours that I don’t think this will be a problem either.

More details? Well, as soon as I have some, you’ll be the first to know …


* As I alluded to in the middle of the post, there really is no failure, as long as you keep trying. Or, to phrase it another way, failure is giving up. Some writers encourage us to replace the word failure with outcome, to lessen the psychological stigma. Think of the old Edison story, of how he went through a gazillion chemical compounds in search of the filament to glow in an electric light bulb. He never thought he failed a gazillion times, only that he produced a gazillion successful outcomes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Heb 12:1b-3

While watching a bunch of really bad movies last night, I was thumbing through a couple of books: an antireligious self-help book (why the fervent need to be “antireligious”?), my old calculus book (I like reading the mathematician bios – go figure), my Astronomy magazines, and a somewhat-Protestant-tinged Bible study guide.

It was the last book, a slim little devotional to “Excellence,” from a Biblical point-of-view, that made the greatest impression on with me, especially as I got ready for bed and slumbered the pre-dawn hours away. This quote, in particular:


… let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before Him He endured the Cross, despising its shame, and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how He endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.


It’s Hebrews, chapter 12, verses 1b-3.

I’m not familiar with that book, towards the end of the New Testament. In full I only read it once, way back in ’92 when I read through the Bible from beginning to end mid-February to mid-April. I’ve tried reading through it a couple times since, but I always found it a dry and somewhat difficult read. I’d say it’s easily the most difficult book of the New Testament. I’d rather read Revelation, or the Gospels, or even Romans.

Anyway, the verses stuck with me all through the night, echoing behind my occipital bones.

“Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus”… Do any of us really do that? Is that what is expected of us, truly, those who claim to be Christians? Those who claim to be “disciples” of Christ? Can it be humanly done? Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus?

Think about it. What do we normally focus on throughout the day? Work? Family? Politics? The mindless inanities we watch on the tube (such as The Amityville Horror)? The single-minded pursuit of short-term and fleeting pleasures? Or simple and possibly self-destructive ways to avoid pain? Imagined sleights, guilt over things that may or may not have happened years ago, anxiety and fear over an illusive future? How about the next item on a never-ending to-do list? Seriously. If you had to chart out in an Excel spreadsheet the percentage of your thoughts * , what would the break down be? Do you even spend 1 percent on Christ? **

Paul tells us to keep our eyes on Jesus. He also says to pray ceaselessly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Can you possibly imagine how your life may change if you took this admonition literally?

Perhaps that’s why those three verses reverberated within my mind throughout the night.


* I’ve read that we have up to 45,000 thoughts a day. I don’t know the veracity of that figure, but I think it makes sense. If you’re awake 18 hours a day, that breaks down to 2500 thoughts an hour, or about 41 thoughts a minute, which yields the average time of just over a second per thought. Makes sense if you count the fleeting stimuli that enter our mind and average in those periods we concentrate on a narrow band of ideas or images.

** One percent of 45,000 is 450. Do you think about Jesus Christ 450 times a day? I don’t know about you, but I consider myself fairly devoted, and I probably think of Him maybe ten or twenty times a day. That’s something like half-a-percent of one percent. Good grief! I spend more thoughts in internal debate on what flavor ice cream to buy at the grocery store … Lord help me!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Amityville Scarefest

I remember reading that book, The Amityville Horror, when I was a kid in the late 70s. I think I read it in one sitting, on the porch of my house, in the middle of the afternoon. It scared me silly. God help me if I read it at night. (I remember reading The Exorcist a few years later at night, in my bedroom, the single window a few feet away open into the blackness, and I could not summon a muscle to move and pull down the shade.) But this book was absolutely terrifying.

Though I haven’t read it in thirty years, I can still vividly recall some of the scenes. I even remember the name of the protagonists, George and Lorie Lutz, I believe. The slime that oozes out of the walls. The statue of the lion that inexplicably bites George. The fact that he continues to awake at 3:15 every morning (an eerie tendency I have at times – it is said that at 3 am the devil walks the earth because that’s 180 degrees past when Christ died on the Cross). And who could forget that pig, Jodie, perhaps a demon, perhaps an hallucination. The scene when George is walking in the backyard and turns to look at his house and sees those glowing pig eyes – in his daughter’s bedroom – wow, I just got goose bumps.

There was some hoopla over whether it was proven to be a hoax; I didn’t follow it and don’t know the outcome. I know there was a bunch of unsuccessful sequels written, but maybe they just needed the cash, you know? Unwitting celebrities. Even if it was a hoax (which it probably was, my rational left-brain is screaming at me), it was still hands-down the scariest book I have ever read. Keep away from it, if you susceptible to these kinds of things. Me, I get a perverse thrill in getting scared. Like millions others, I suppose.

But do you want to hear something else that’s scary?

The Amityville Horror is on television tonight, on AMC at 8 pm!

It’s the 1979 original, not the crappy remake of a few years’ back. I saw the first movie once or twice, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, and recall being disappointed. However, that pig-eye scene is still there, and it’s one of the most frightening things ever caught on film. I dare you to watch it and not jump five feet in the air. And later, sleep with the lights on …

PS … Just discovered that George Lutz died three years ago. And that his wife’s name is Kathy, not Lorie. From this website.

And I just remembered, as a small piece of useless trivia, one summer day in 1986. My friends and I drove down the Jersey shore to a bungalow owned by the mother of my friend, Rich the guitarist, and after a coupla hours jamming went to a lake, or perhaps a cove, a few miles away to jump off the dock and swim. Rich pointed up the shore, to a group of houses nestled in the woods a hundred yards inland. “See that house … right there,” he said, guiding my line of sight. “That’s where they filmed the Amityville Horror. That’s the house.” And then I saw it, those tell-tale attic windows, and got very creeped out.

PPS ... Just did an online search of my local libraries and found out that they classify the book as Nonfiction. Hmmmmm ...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Vacation

Well, the wife and my two daughters left yesterday afternoon for a five-day visit with her parents down in South Carolina. We spent all morning laundering, packing, herding, feeding, bathing, dressing, then loading the car, driving the highways, negotiating the airport. They made their four o’clock flight no problem, lifted off without delay, and landed down in Savannah a little after six, on schedule. Nana picked them up, the start of their nearly week-long adventure.

It’s also my vacation, too, but I’ll get to that in a second.

Of much concern was how Patch would handle the flight. Vocal Patch. Very vocal Patch. The Little One, now, she’s an experienced traveler. This is her third flight, and she’s not even five years old. Twice down to South Carolina, and once to Puerto Rico. She knows what to expect. With much excitement and fanfare the other day she picked out her color and flavor gum (cinnamon Orbit) to chew when her ears start altitude poppin’. Her Hello Kitty backpack loaded to the point of bursting with toys, games, coloring books and stuffed animals, her Elmo sunglasses firmly on her forehead, she’s ready for the excitement of air travel and knows to keep close to Mommy.

Patch, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity here.

Over the past week she’s developed a very bad habit, one she probably picked up from the other girl she’s with regularly at daycare. Out of the blue, for no apparent reason, she shout/screams a piercing, ear-splitting yell. She’s not in pain, not hungry, not uncomfortable, not ignored, not alone. But she’ll do this randomly. It especially bugs me during car travel, ’cause in my car it somehow gains decibels by a factor of ten. After our thirty-minute commutes back and forth to the sitter I got a thudding headache. We try to shush her calmly, try to ignore her when she does it, try to place a gentle finger over her lips, all to no effect, so far.

We were very worried this might be the case in the closed and cramped quarters of the plane my wife would be taking.

Plus, Patch still has some fluid in her ears. The pediatrician gave us some antibiotics and some baby Allegra to possibly alleviate any symptoms of pain. But who can tell? Patch certainly can’t explain to us calmly what she’s feeling. And who can tell if the airport, with their crazy inexplicable security protocols nowadays, who can tell if they’ll even let my wife on board with her bag o’ baby drugs? She made sure to get a typewritten note from the pediatrician on his letterhead stating that the drugs were necessary for the baby’s well-being.

Our ace-in-the-hole, our nuclear option, our mutual-assured-destruction, was a pacifier. We don’t raise our children with pacifiers (for a whole host of reasons we won’t go into on this post). Doesn’t mean various sitters haven’t used them on our children, particularly Patch during her hugely fussy first-three-months-of-existence. But my wife broke down and bought two pacifiers as a last-ditch way of dealing with nine-month-old meltdowns.

And you know what? What could have made for a nightmare flight for not only Patch and my wife but, oh, say, a hundred other innocent travelers, turned out to be a piece of cake. Patch handled it with aplomb. No pacifiers needed. She ate on the plane which took care of the ascent phase, and spent the two hours playing with a key chain.

Three cheers for Patch.

So, the wife and the two little ones are in South Carolina, for five days of alternating beach-and-pool mornings, barbecues, fireworks, yes, a little bit of shopping and personal care, a cocktail party (after the children are in bed, of course), and general relaxation.

That last part brings me back to this wondrous fact: It’s my vacation, too.

Yes, I have a Honey-Do list. Wanna see it?

* Mow lawn, clip hedges, sweep deck, weed walkway
* Install child gates
* Get wife’s car serviced at local garage
* Dentist’s appointment on Monday
* Catalog DVDs in this spinning thingie
* Fix the door on the TV cabinet
* Call a plumber to get downstairs toilet fixed
* Clean grill and fix broken handle on it
* Tighten ceiling fans

Not a bad list, eh? If I can do two a day, I should be able to manage it, me, who can barely turn a screw. The key is this: everything gets done faster without those little plaintive Hey Daddy’s. I love my children and will miss them terribly, but I kinda like the productivity attained by being able to work without distractions.

Also, I can spend the remaining time, as unlimited as I want, reading, writing, and working online. Guilt-free. In fact, I got my own list, too. There’s a writing project I’ve code-named Bruegel (you may find out more later), a website idea that I am in the middle-stages of completing (you probably will find more out later), and continued daily blogging, of course.

I still have about fourteen or fifteen books out of the library I’m working my way through (I read through half of one last night, breaking only for some ice cream and the beginning of Return of the Jedi). And I am hooked on an excellent book, The Godwhale, which I am really looking forward to reviewing. Great stuff. Gotta research that author later.

Everybody’s been knocking on my door and ringing up the phone to try to get me to do something. Unlike most people, social events generally give me anxiety. I am comfortable being alone. I like being solitary. I am almost downright reclusive. Do not fret that I am alone. Do not worry for my sake that I might “have nothing to do.” I welcome the five days of peace, quiet, and silence.

Though I know in a day or two I’ll be walking from empty room to empty room, wondering what my little ones are up to.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

... Previously posted but amazingly underappreciated ...

Happy 4th of July!

How ’bout some trivia? Okay! How ’bout of the presidents, kinda fits with the holiday? Okay, again!

All right!

Oh, by the way, par is 50% correct. Any score greater, well, you’re a scholar!

1. Which president had the lowest approval rating of any president in the twentieth century?

2. Which president is the only one to have a classical symphony written in his honor?

3. Which president delivered his own collection of books to establish the Library of Congress?

4. Who was the only president to publish a book of his poetry?

5. Which president conversed with his wife in Mandarin Chinese?

6. Which president authored fourteen books before entering the White House?

7. Since Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, only two presidents have refused to make their medical records public. Who were they?

8. Which president said "I only know two tunes: ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and I don’t know the name of the other"?

9. Which president was once shot down by enemy antiaircraft guns?

10a. Which two presidents died on the Fourth of July in the same year?

10b. Which president was born on the Fourth of July?

(Scroll down for the answers.)

Got these questions and a couple of hundred more from a really neat little book I bought in the bargain racks at Barnes and Noble: Which President Killed a Man? For the answer to that question, you’ll have to do a little bit of research. (winks)

Answers

1. Harry Truman, at 22 percent. Nixon’s at Watergate was at 23 percent. Makes George Bush Jr seem like Mr. Popularity. It’s not commonly remembered, but a bill of impeachment was introduced against Truman, and though he was untouched, several of his higher officials resigned, convicted of corruption.

2. Abraham Lincoln. Aaron Copland wrote a symphony entitled "Lincoln Portrait" in 1942. I’ve heard it, and recommend it; it’s very moving.

3. Thomas Jefferson. Heavily in debt, Jefferson sold his 6,500 volume collection to the US government for just under $24,000. The previous US library had been destroyed by the British in the War of 1812.

4. John Quincy Adams. His verse, inspired by nature scenes, was published after he left the White House.

5. Herbert Hoover. He and his wife learned the language in China in the early 1900s while Herbert worked as a mining engineer.

6. Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote biographies, histories, nature studies, books on patriotism. He also allegedly read over ten thousand books, sometimes a couple a week and some in other languages. It's also stated by biographers that he had a photographic memory. Puts a different spin on the rugged cowboy image with which he’s often portrayed.

7. John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Their failure to release these records have spawned many rumors, but the conclusive reasons for withholding them are unknown.

8. Ulysses Grant. Despite the best efforts of his wife to get him to attend theater and musicals, General Grant was no lover of culture.

9. George H. Bush, in WW II. In his 39 months of service he logged over 1,200 hours of flight time and was one of only four pilots in his fourteen pilot squadron to survive the war. After being shot down he was rescued by a submarine. He commemorated the incident by parachuting from a plane again, fifty years later.

10a. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both signers of the Declaration of Independence. Both died in 1826, 50 years after the signing. Adams outlasted his foe and later friend by a few hours.

10b. Calvin Coolidge was born July 4, 1872.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Beyond Apollo


[as usual, minor spoilers...]



Ugh.

I want my four hours back.

Can something be pretentious and crude at the same time? Can an ostensibly science fiction novel about the first manned expedition to Venus that has more mentions of the sex act – solo, heterosexual in marriage, and homosexual innuendo – than the word “Venus” win a major award? Can rambling, disconnected verbal diarrhea result in a satisfying, conclusive, thought-provoking enlightening experience?


Yes, Yes, and No.

Look, I get what Malzberg is driving at. I know having “Venus” as your subject implies a possible exploration of sexual themes. The book was published in 1974, so you know it has to be hip, antiestablishment, anti-literary, edgy. Yes, I get that. So was Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, which is the work that kept popping into my head as I read Beyond Apollo. Both novels are written as first-person journals of men who may or may not be insane. And while I thought Disch’s book a worthwhile read, I was only able to get to the end of Apollo because the chapters are short and I was hoping against all hope that the end would wrap everything up.

It’s like someone throwing a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces at you and saying, “Hey man! This is the most awesome thing you’ll see! It won an award! Put it together, and you’ll see.” Only problem is, you have no idea what the picture is and as you put it together, you realize you’re missing about half the pieces.

For 153 pages we read the words of Harry M. Evans – an astronaut who happens to be the sole survivor of the first manned mission to Venus, in 1981. His commanding officer, the Captain, was killed, and though we’re given a couple of different possible death scenarios throughout the book, we’re never told exactly how, or why. Evans is schizophrenic, switching back and forth between first- and third-person narration. He could have killed his commanding officer, or the “Venusians,” who mentally contact the crewmen – maybe – and warn them to keep away. Arty, but unsatisfying.

The premise is good but I don’t feel Malzberg quite pulls it off. He’s doesn’t stay true to the old “psychic aliens are warning mankind away” kind of thing we saw a lot of in the 1950s. He doesn’t have to, mind you, but if he starts to monkey around with reader expectation he needs to replace it with something better. Be more mind-bending than those alleged Venusians. All he gives us is sad-sack Evans moaning over his cold wife and failed marriage and how he was hot for his Captain. May I remind you that there’s 153 pages of this?

Yeah, I’m disappointed. Malzberg has great street cred, though, so I’ll read more of his stuff as I come across it. But as far as Beyond Apollo goes, the only thought I found myself entertaining during the last half of the book was a kind of meta-theme: Can a book be labeled a “science fiction” book if the only “science fiction” takes place allegedly in the mind of the protagonist? I mean, replace “Venusians” with “Injuns” and the “first manned mission to Venus” with the “lead-up to Little Big Horn,” and you could construct a similar book. Or “Venusians” with “Nazis” and “first manned mission” with “escaping a POW camp.” This was the unintended mental exercise bouncing about my badly bruised brain as I closed the book on Beyond Apollo.