Our Weather & Other Tidbits September 29, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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On Monday, here in Orange, California, the temperature was an ovenly 107 degrees. The heat outside was intense and palpable. It didn’t cling like the humid Julys in Illinois, but encompassed the body. The day before, some of our friends were huddled under blankets, bundled in jackets, shivering in the annual fall chill at Wrigley Field. The air blowing off Lake Michigan was a September-balmy 45 degrees or so. Unlike anywhere else we’ve lived, darkness in Southern California brings relief from the day’s heat. In the wake of that scorcher on Monday, the temperature dropped to 69 in the middle of the night.
As we reminisced about Illinois weather patterns, we realized that, as children, we both watched the handsome Flip Spiceland on WCIS, before his gig in CNN’s early decades. Talking about the weather this week, in a way we hadn’t in a very long time, reminded Doug of his 7th-grade assignment to learns the names, types, and functions of clouds. Anna, even younger than that, checked out a little book about clouds from her grade-school library and recounted her new knowledge to her father as they drove for hours in the big blue station wagon to Wisconsin. The memory lingered vividly enough that she wrote a poem about it, called “A Theory of Formation.”
As kids, we liked that we could look to the skies and put names to what we saw, that we could categorize. Cumulus clouds were those heaping mounds rolling from the West. Cirrus, those high, wispy things. We could tell which might bring rain: nimbostratus pulling itself over our landscape like a gray sheet. We liked the sounds of the cloud names, how cumulonimbus could roll off our young tongues. We like these words even now.
When transplants to California like us struggle to make sense of the weather here, it is partly the lack of wide variation. The high and low temperature in a single day can be separated by 40 degrees, but a 40-degree shift from one day’s high to the next day’s high would be very unusual. In the first three weeks of September here, the high daily temperature varied from 73 to 86. During that same time in Chicago, the highs varied from 67 to 83. That looks to be just about the same. But it’s not. The Midwest temperatures are trending downward now. Still relatively new to California, we can’t sense the subtle weather trends here, so we tend to think it’s all the same, except for the exceptions like Monday’s heat wave.
The clouds—or lack of many or varied cloud formations—compound our lack of sensitivity. In late spring and early summer, there exists a marine layer phenomenon here, in which the ocean cools the air and a fog rolls inland over miles of the coast. Locals call this June gloom. We found this term hysterical when we first heard it, for this was the brightest gloom we’d ever seen. We wore sunglasses on these gloomy mornings. And the gloom burned off by lunchtime.
Technology always removes us further from our environment. If we had awakened on Russian steppes a couple of hundred years ago, we would have turned our noses in the air or watched our livestock and known what to expect from the impending weather. Anna’s grandfather would go out into his backyard, lick his finger and hold it up, and declare what the weather would be. No one took him particularly seriously, not even him. But some modern men remain obsessed by and attentive to the weather. From his kitchen window at the same time each day, Doug’s grandfather meticulously recorded the temperature and rainfall in notebooks, for years at a time. Those scratches in his notebooks marked time and seasons in one spot on Earth, an accurate record of the environment that was never used for anything more than that.
Before we wrap up this post entirely, we must note that September 29 is a day chockfull of events in the larger record. Here are a few scratches in our notebook:
- In its return to space after the Challenger disaster, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched STS-26 in 1988.
- In 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne flew the first space flight of two required to win the X Prize.
- In 1954, the convention establishing the European Organization for Nuclear Research—CERN—was signed.
- Today is Enrico Fermi’s birthday. This Nobel Laureate in Physics was born in 1901. (This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics will be named on Tuesday.)
- It’s the anniversary of W.H. Auden’s death. He died in 1973, at the age of 66. From “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard, / The desert sighs in the bed.”
Guest Blog: Christopher Cowen September 27, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Information, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
Today, we launch our Guest Blog feature at Lofty Ambitions. Guest Blogs will continue to appear every first and third Monday of the month. Our first Guest Blogger is Christopher Cowen, who will be at Chapman University on October 5, 2010, to show and discuss the film An Article of Hope. The event is open to the public and is hosted by the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. Click here for more information.
Christopher Cowen is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and is the VP of Original Programming at the award-winning television and marketing content firm Herzog & Company. A native Californian, he began his career in entertainment as a production assistant on the blockbuster motion picture Apollo 13. He has worked on other motion pictures and television projects including: From the Earth to the Moon, The Eco-Challenge, Dante’s Peak, and The Chamber. In 1998, Cowen joined Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone Company as a Development Executive and worked on a myriad of Playtone projects, including The Polar Express, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Band of Brothers. Cowen went on to serve as a Writer and Associate Producer on the IMAX feature presentation Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D. Most recently, he acted as the producer on the Oscar short-listed David McCullough: Painting with Words and the History Channel special The Real Robin Hood.
SUPERMAN’S SECRET HIDEOUT BY CHRISTOPHER COWEN
There is a place at Kennedy Space Center that holds an enormous historical and personal significance to me. It’s called the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center now, but before NASA became too politically correct, it was simply called “the Beach House.” Since the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it has been a place for astronauts and their families to relax, and spend some personal time with family and friends before their flight.
Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, and his family spent time there, as did the rest of the ill-fated crew of Columbia (STS-107). I have spent that last seven years getting to know Ilan Ramon posthumously as I served as a producer on the documentary An Article of Hope. The film details a story that begins in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Holocaust, where a young boy, Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, had his Bar Mitzvah and was given a tiny torah scroll by a Rabbi in the camp. The boy survived, and went on to become Dr. Joachim Joseph, a prominent Israeli scientist who helped train the Columbia astronauts for an Israeli experiment that was to be carried into space. Besides their common faith, Colonel Ramon and Yoya’s bond sprung forth out of the unifying fact that Ilan’s mother and grandmother were held at Auschwitz. The two friends decided that Ramon should carry the tiny torah scroll onboard Columbia to show the world that the human spirit can transcend the depths of hell and go to the heights of space.
I imagine the conversations that took place between Ilan Ramon and his wife, Rona, at the Beach House. I think about them standing on the deck—looking out at the beautiful coastal waters of the Cape and filled with excitement for the mission. I am sure that Ilan had moments of deep reflection, knowing that he carried a great burden on his shoulders being the first Israeli astronaut. He was going into space not only as a representative of all the people of Israel, but of all the Jewish people throughout the world. But his mission had a deeper personal significance; he was carrying the tiny torah scroll that had been birthed in a death camp. The scroll survived a place that was intended to stomp out diversity in the world, and now he was part of a multinational crew that would showcase diversity on the global stage as they launched into the heavens. I imagine he took great pride in knowing that would be his legacy.
I am privileged to have had the chance to spend time at the Beach House. In 1998, while working on the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, we were allowed to film there and it has always stuck in my mind. I remember standing there and thinking about those that had been there before—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins before landing on the Moon, the Challenger crew, those on the first Shuttle flight, the crew of Apollo 1. I remember thinking that the Beach House was a place of historic significance that would probably never be on any tour, but that maybe it should be. Or, maybe the beach house is a sacred place for those of us who support and believe in mankind’s need to explore. At the end of the day, is our manned spaceflight program about how many rocks we brought home from the Moon? Or whether or not ants can live in space? I think that if the walls of the Beach House could talk, we would realize it’s about the more personal stories of triumph, tragedy, friendship, love, passion, and belief.
The American public is bombarded with images and factoids of why astronauts are national heroes in the vein of Superman. I think we need to take off the cape, strip off the superhero suit, and think of them as men and women standing on a porch filled with nervous energy and excitement—looking out at the ocean knowing they will soon leave the earth to celebrate a grand human achievement. The men and women who launch themselves into space are more akin to the likes of Clark Kent. They have families and friends, they dream big dreams, and they suffer losses just like you and I. I never met Ilan Ramon, but I imagine him standing on the porch of the Beach House looking to the heavens and knowing that his dreams would one day be fulfilled.
Big News for Curiosity Day! September 25, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, WWII
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Today is Curiosity Day (click here for kit), so deemed to honor the inquisitive spirit of Curious George. Anna’s mother remembers reading about Curious George when she, like the monkey in those books, was in the hospital as a child, and the copy Doug remembers was from his father’s childhood. The adventures of Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat—riding a bike, flying a kite—were read to us as children, over and over again. And we’ve been curious people ever since.
H.A. and Margret Rey created the characters in these books. As World War II encroached on Paris, they grabbed the manuscript of Curious George and fled on bicycles. They made their way to Brazil, and the book was published in 1941. For Curious George Gets a Medal, the Reys were inspired by a newspaper story about two mice sent into space to study the effects of weightlessness. A marketing decision left Margret without credit for years, but the writing-illustrating couple is now properly named as co-authors. The Reys moved to Boston in 1963, and that’s where Curiosity Day began.
And what are we curious about? Too much! Right now, we are especially interested in the impending end of manned spaceflight and the last two Space Shuttle missions. What did we do about it? We got press credentials for STS-133 in November. We’re charged with writing an article for Chapman Magazine that pulls together our experience, the aerospace history of Southern California (the Shuttle was built here), and the NASA collection under development at Chapman’s Leatherby Libraries. Of course, we’ll write all about it at Lofty Ambitions too.
Big news: DOUG AND ANNA GET TO SEE THE PENULTIMATE SHUTTLE LAUNCH UP CLOSE! Yay!
Choo-choo! September 22, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Other Stuff.
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Aviation killed the railroad car. Flying came and broke your heart. Oh-ooh. And now we meet in an abandoned station. We hearing the chugging and it seems so long ago. And you remember the whistles used to go…
But aviation hasn’t usurped passenger train travel completely. In fact, last week, Rae Armantrout, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, took Amtrak from San Diego to Anaheim for her Tabula Poetica visit. Anaheim’s train station is nestled into the parking lot of Angel Stadium, and the trains ran on time. Rae found the rail travel far more enjoyable than driving because she spent her time reading.
In childhood, Doug had a bedroom window overlooking a small patch of Midwestern overgrowth, surrounded by homes and farmland. This space was known affectionately as The Gulley. Late at night, all manner of hue and cry issued from The Gulley. Despite parental assurances about cats, raccoons, and other small creatures, Doug remains convinced that the tree-lined area, complete with watering hole, was the actual home of Bigfoot. If Bigfoot exists, he lives in this gulley, not in the dark, old-growth woods as claimed by those in the Pacific Northwest—Doug has lived in both places, so he knows.
The nighttime sound that cuts through memory most sharply now is the powerful blare of the locomotive horn. Just north of Doug’s childhood home, a single railroad line sliced The Gulley in two. At regular intervals, laden freight trains hammered their way through town, rattling windows as a tangible reminder of their power, their heavy load. Doug’s first word was for the train; he called it frau-frau.
Anna grew up the granddaughter of a retired Pullman Conductor, who still dreamed of walking the aisles of the Santa Fe Chief. Her own father took Anna and her sister to the train station in Springfield with its great mural. The goal was sometimes to meet friends or family visiting from Chicago, but mostly the idea was to smash pennies on the track, something no longer done. Once the family moved “to the country,” there was a railroad track across Route 29. Whenever a train halted the ride home, Anna’s father counted the cars. He didn’t always count the cars on every train, but if he couldn’t see the end, he counted, just to know for sure when he’d seen the longest train of his life.
Back then, in the 1970s, trains and the railroad—the area belonged to Burlington Northern—were a vital part of the economic fabric of the towns in central Midwest. At that time, Abingdon, where Doug grew up, even had a new addition—imagine that, a small Midwestern town that was actually growing in size. Trains of that era were ad hoc and random seeming in their comportment: box cars in various colors, flat cars carrying all manner of machinery and materiel, different logos (like Chessie, the sleepy cat), even a caboose or two rushing by. In Galesburg, near the rail yards, a sign still announces how many days since the last injury on the job.
After our childhoods, trains played a more prosaic role in our lives: ordinary transport. In college, Amtrak meant a quick, cheap ride to Chicago from Champaign or Galesburg. A few years ago, train runs were added between the state’s university towns and its northern hub. Chicago’s Union station is a bustling, clean place, not the dark, dingy hall it was in the 1980s.
After college, when Anna was earning her MFA at the University of Maryland and Doug was an Abstractor/Indexer at a NASA CASI near Baltimore, DC’s ubiquitous and efficient Metro system meant cheap, unfettered access to the joys of the nation’s capitol without the flop sweat induced by negotiating the spoked street system and trying to find a parking spot near Dupont Circle. The Green Line station was behind our apartment complex, the Red Line got us to our favorite museums and restaurants, and the Blue or Yellow Line whisked us all the way to National Airport. Since then, our lives have taken us to Ohio, Missouri, and Oregon and back to Illinois—and now to California. Amtrak and the city’s commuter train systems have been there to handle those trips when driving was more nuisance than aid.
Los Angeles has a strange history with the railroads and a deeply rooted attachment to the car—and to the individual and autonomy that an automobile represents. Patt Morrison, an NPR commentator, writes, in an essay in My California: “Los Angeles is a city built by centrifugal forces, and what’s in the center of a centrifuge? Not much.” She explains that Southern California’s character has been suburban from the get-go. The center never held here, as it did in Chicago or New York, whose immigrants clung together in communities. Immigrants to SoCal tended to be middle-class, with money and skills, so their destination was not a community. “You think I traveled all this way by wagon/ship/train to reach this glorious sunshine to cram myself into some dark, little flat?” We get the sense that Californians don’t much like trains, that trains in California don’t often get you where you want to go, that the railroad just isn’t the same concept here. It’s no wonder, as Southern California, in fact, may be a home—if not the home—of aviation.
We miss the train, though we can hear the whistle of the occasional Amtrak and Metrolink—there’s a station a couple of blocks from Chapman University’s campus. We should hop a train to San Diego—we’d like to visit there. We’re hoping that the plan for high-speed to Las Vegas pans out, too. At least, we’ve been to Union Station in Los Angeles, the place Anna’s grandfather paused before turning around and heading home—that deserves its own blog post here someday.
Dreaming of Jeannie September 18, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
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Roughly a month before Anna was born, I Dream of Jeannie premiered on September 18, 1965. The first thing in life that Anna ever memorized was the I Dream of Jeannie schedule from TV Guide. In fact, for each season, the show switched its day and time, and reruns started in 1971 with another schedule. Without a doubt, a woman who gets bottled up every night and calls her sweetheart Master poses a problematic role model. But what little girl in the late 1960s and early 1970s wouldn’t want a kindly gentleman astronaut for a first love—a romance with the Space Age (with real magical powers to boot)? Who doesn’t want to have some magic in her? What little boy doesn’t want to be an astronaut?
I Dream of Jeannie was NBC’s response to ABC’s Bewitched, which had premiered the year before to great success. The first episode of I Dream of Jeannie—“The Lady in the Bottle”—was filmed in black and white, one of two NBC regular shows that weren’t yet in color. The episode opens with astronaut Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) getting suited up for a mission into space, where we learn that Tony is scheduled to marry General Stone’s daughter. Shortly after liftoff, the final stage misfires, the mission is aborted, and Tony ends up on the sandy beach, where he finds a bottle. Out of the bottle emerges smoke and the Jeannie (played by Barbara Eden) we came to know, all decked out in her exotic costume carefully designed to hide her navel. She doesn’t speak English, and impulsively kisses him. His response: “I must have gone further into orbit than I thought.” Tony wishes she could speak English, so then she does. When he realizes that he could never explain a beautiful genie, Tony sets her free, but she’s in love, returns to her bottle, and wheedles her way home with him in his belongings.
Home for Jeannie and Tony is Cocoa Beach and its adjacent Cape Canaveral, home to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first successful rocket launch from the Cape was in 1950, and the Titan missile was first tested there in 1959. All of the Mercury and Gemini missions and Apollo 7 were launched from Cape Canaveral, though the rest of Apollo and current launches occur nearby at Kennedy Space Center. Following President Kennedy’s death, Cape Canaveral had a ten-year run under the name Cape Kennedy, but Floridians didn’t like that so much and restored its original name, which dates back 400 years.
Of course, with a genie at home running around in his button-down white shirt—and apparently little else—with a genie who loves him, has a jealous streak, and has a sad story of imprisonment, it quickly becomes impossible for Tony to appear sane to his fiancée. In fact, in order to keep the magic a secret only the two of them share, Jeannie and Tony must work together over five seasons to make others—namely Dr. Bellows and fellow astronaut Roger Healey—appear to be the bumbling or neurotic ones. Forty-five years ago, that first episode ended with a kiss, a quick (but thwarted) visit to the bedroom, and Jeannie winking to the audience.
New Shower Curtain September 17, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff.
Tags: Chemistry, Physics, Wright Brothers
Our new shower curtain featuring the Periodic Table arrived from ThinkGeek. It’s a little flimsier than we’d hoped, with no magnets at the bottom and little reinforcement around the holes for the curtain rings. But the design is great, and the colors really perk up the bathroom. We’ll get a liner to extend the life of this fancy shower curtain–and so that the full periodic table can be draped on the outside of the tub allowing us to study up on the measurement conversion listed at the bottom of the curtain.
If you’re interested in a really sturdy shower curtain (something that holds up in the washing machine) or one that doesn’t need rings, we recommend the hookless options from Arcs & Angles. We only wish they had more colorful designs (they used to).
On a more somber note, today marks the anniversary of the first powered airplane fatality. In 1908, Orville Wright crashed a Wright Flyer during a demonstration flight in Virginia for the military. Thomas Selfridge died in the accident at age 26. Orville Wright spent seven weeks in the hospital.
Currently, Southwest Airlines has the best record in U.S. passenger air travel, with more than 15 million flights since 1970 and no crash fatalities. American Airlines has had the most fatal events since 1970, with 13, but it’s also flown the most flights of any domestic carrier. The Colgan Air crash in 2009 is the most recent fatal crash in the United States (view an excerpt from the Frontline documentary here). But U.S. air travel is incredibly safe. If we don’t count the four doomed flights on September 11, 2001, fewer than one fatal crash per year has occurred in the last dozen years (for NTSB list, click here), even though almost 30,000 commercial airline flights take to the skies on any given day.
Serendipity Weekend September 15, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Other Stuff.
Tags: Airshows, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Serendipity
When we decided to do Lofty Ambitions, one area of our lives we planned to explore was what it meant for us to grow up—to be children and become young adults—during the Cold War. As twelve-year-olds, the locus of our fears, because it was the locus of the nation’s fears, was the Soviet Union. By the time we came along, the confrontation had become familiar, and Ruskie bogeymen and the nuclear threat populated our favorite television shows. In The Six-Million-Dollar Man’s first season, conspirators try to stop Oscar Goldman from negotiating with the Soviets and Steve Austin visits an island with a cosmonaut. In The Bionic Woman, scientists try to force nations to live in peace by threatening to destroy the world if any nuclear weapon is exploded. We didn’t necessarily plan to touch upon this area of our lives this week.
But the two of us have always placed great value on the role of serendipity in our lives. How else might we explain that a single grandfather can be the seed for each of our very different novel manuscripts? One of these serendipitous moments occurred again for us just a couple of weeks ago. On the same day that Wings, a 1966 Russian film, showed up in our Netflix queue, two of Doug’s colleagues—Stacy Russo and Brett Fisher—gave him the same article about aviation museums. The film depicts a woman whose life found its greatest meaning during her harrowing days as a World War II fighter pilot. The article, clipped from the most recent issue of Westways, reviewed several of the nation’s best aviation museums, including Planes of Fame. That’s a museum in nearby Chino Hills that we’ve meant to visit—and that weekend’s program featured lectures on World War II Russian aircraft.
It’s not as if we didn’t have other pressing tasks that weekend, but serendipity isn’t something with which to trifle. Planes of Fame hosted a panel lecture and then a demonstration of the Yakovlev fighter—the Yak-3, to be precise. Small, sleek, and powerful, the Yak-3 makes it clear why flying such a plane during the campaign on the Eastern Front could be the peak of Nadezhda Petrukhina’s life in Wings. The flying scenes don’t convey whether she flew the Yak-3, but that’s where serendipity points us when we watch that film the night before our visit to the aviation museum.
At the beginning of Wings, Petrukhina is measured for civilian clothes, a suit that is really a new uniform. The middle of the film is muddled by a love story—it’s set in Russia during World War II, so you know where this is going. Her lover’s fighter is wounded. As she instinctively circles her own plane around his in their last moments together, she watches her lover’s fighter auger into a forest. By the end of the film, we know where a friendly visit to the local aerodrome is going too: back into the air.
The airspace above us in Chino was a hive of activity: two general aviation pilots practiced formation flying, assorted Pipers and Cessnas and a lone Bellanca took to the air, and several commercial jets bound for LAX passed overhead. All the while, the Yak-3 roared through gentle arcs, its every moment aloft a tense battle between too much power and barely enough wing surface. It didn’t so much fly as prowl, as if waiting for one of the lesser aircraft to get out of line.
One point the day’s speakers—Edward Maloney, Frank Mormillo, and Charles Isaacs—made shades the way we now view those flying scenes in Wings and the flight of the Yak-3 over Southern California. For the Russians, the air war on the Eastern Front was a numbers game. Estimates vary, but place Russian aircraft losses at 36,000 planes to German losses of 4,000, a 9-to-1 ratio. And yet, this wasn’t out of step with the Russian mindset, which might be crystallized as the attitude, If we have a single aircraft flying home at the end and they don’t, we win.
As the question-and-answer session was winding down at Planes of Fame, several men pointed out that what made an American aircraft most appealing to Russian aviators in World War II was the radio. If relative equals in speed or maneuverability meet, a plane with a radio is better than a plane without one. Serendipity isn’t everything, then. Planning, practice, and communication—negotiating as you go—must be part of the mix. Fortunate discoveries and happenstance connections don’t amount to very much if you can’t respond to them, if you can’t share them.
Guest Blog Announced! September 12, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information.
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Lofty Ambitions announces the launch a Guest Blog feature with a special piece by Christopher Cowen on Monday, September 27. Christopher Cowen is Vice President of Original Programming at Herzog & Company and started his career as a production assistant on the film Apollo 13. He’ll visit Chapman University on October 5 for a special showing of the documentary he’s produced, An Article of Hope, hosted by the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education.
After that, Guest Blogs will appear at Lofty Ambitions every first and third Monday of the month. October guest bloggers will be 7th-grader Jack Dechow on his summer course about the physics of flight and poet, essayist, and blogger Joe Bonomo on his father, an IBM mathematician working on unmanned spaceflight.
Mark your calendars for Lofty Ambitions Guest Blogs! Subscribe via e-mail so you don’t miss anything! To subscribe, just enter your email address in the upper-right side bar (UNDER the search tool) and hit “Sign me up!”
Vote for the wake-up song for NASA’s STS-133, the penultimate Shuttle mission scheduled to launch on November 1. To vote, click here.
Boldly Going! September 8, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
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In the 1970s, the grip that children had on television programming was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. The thin slice of broadcast hours that kids had a hold on was limited to Saturday mornings—about which we now realize, thirty-some years later, adults couldn’t care less—and the magical weekday afternoon span between the end of soap operas and talk shows and the beginning of the evening news. The heavyweight shows that stand out in the memories of our after-school television viewing are Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, and the sine qua non Star Trek.
Star Trek debuted September 8, 1966, when Anna wasn’t yet a year old and Doug’s mother was anxiously awaiting the birth of her first son. The episode that aired on that Thursday night forty-four years ago was “The Man Trap.” The original pilot, “The Cage”—from which only the character of Mr. Spock went on to the series—didn’t air until 1986. After a 79-episode run, Star Trek ended on June 3, 1969. But it went into reruns almost immediately that same fall, perfect timing to shape our young brains.
For Doug, there were Star Trek model kits, phasers, tricorders, and communicators. With his friend Joey (who will write a future guest blog post here), Doug borrowed standard wire from his father and wrapped it around a set of steel rods that the two boys pounded into the ground. By connecting the wire to a 9-volt wet cell (Doug’s father would not relinquish the car battery), the boys created a force field in the backyard. For a child growing up with Apollo, Skylab, and Star Trek, it wasn’t a question of whether Doug would become a scientist (or an engineer or a pilot), but rather a question of why anyone would want to do anything that a Star Trek character didn’t do.
Anna watched Star Trek with her father. Her most memorable episode with him was “The Trouble with Tribbles.” It was if her father recognized that’s the way life really is: it’s all too easy to be distracted from our lofty ambitions by the small, soothing, seemingly harmless pleasures in life. As Captain Kirk puts it, “Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” Rather harsh wisdom. (That’s also the episode in which Scotty and Chekov debate the relative virtues of scotch and vodka.) Whatever else Star Trek offered, it certainly gave us lessons for life and was, therefore, a moral tale even more than it was an adventure story.
Its moral center, oddly, was a triangle: Dr. Leonard McCoy, Mr. Spock, and Captain James T. Kirk. But we might argue that William Shatner remains the show’s center, moral or otherwise. In fact, a recent New York Times article about him points out that another newspaper proclaimed this is William Shatner’s universe, and the rest of us just live in it. On screen, Captain Kirk does what Robert Pinsky in The Sounds of Poetry warns against: “the mistake of pronouncing the words in some special, chanting or ‘poetic’ manner.” Captain Kirk exaggerates the rhythm of his lines, creating over-the-top emphasis: KLINGon BASTard! You KILLED my SON! Who doesn’t want to talk like that in certain moments? That’s a voice thoroughly from the heart and yet so aware of itself that it must be and can’t possibly be taken seriously.
Star Trek was a campy show that way, all silliness as characters pretended to lift boulders made of painted polystyrene and Dr. McCoy saying He’s dead, Jim for the umpteenth time. (DeForest Kelly actually said a version of that line in a film before the series even began.) But the series was about big ideas that couldn’t be dismissed—about where technology and space exploration might take humankind (not just the United States), about seeing past the Cold War in which we were living then, and about how to know when our prime directives didn’t do justice to the situation at hand.
Campy or moralistic, Star Trek was important enough that NASA named its first shuttle orbiter Enterprise. Gene Rodenberry and the cast attended its dedication ceremony in 1976. That Space Shuttle performed atmospheric flight tests and was never outfitted for spaceflight. But it was the very first of its kind and is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
Happy 44th birthday, Star Trek! May you, of course, live long and prosper.
Gotta Get Away September 1, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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Last week, we wrote about weekend workshops in Iowa, but sometimes 48 hours away from everyday life isn’t enough to become immersed in your writing life. A weekend workshop is great for learning a single technique or addressing a specific issue in a particular project. Don’t know how to begin? Stuck in the middle? Wondering how to generate dialogue? A weekend is enough time to give you some guidance. If you really need to reconnect with your work for the long haul, a longer writing residency can open up the mental space that’s hemmed in by everyday life.
Ten years ago, Anna spent a month at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC), where she studied poetry with Robert Creeley and Arthur Sze. There, writers and visual artists commingle in the billboard-free rolling hills. The interaction with painters, photographers, and three-dimensional artists—at meals in the shared dining lodge, in each other’s studios, at readings and lectures—was an opportunity to think not just about her emerging poetry manuscript and about language, but also about the creative process more broadly. Talking with visual artists like Celia Ko, a painter and mixed-media artist from Hong Kong, and Mary Robinson, a printmaker from South Carolina, pushed Anna to think seriously about what she was doing as a poet—as an artist using words—and to articulate how and why she wrote. The artists even nudged all residents to make hats for a communal dinner, so that writers became mixed-media artists, too, for a day. Being a writer requires isolated work, but we’re also part of a large community of smart, thoughtful, vibrant people. We can nourish and inform each other’s endeavors.
Of course, at any month-long residency, there’s plenty of the necessary isolation, too. At VSC, each resident has a private room with a desk (though bathrooms are shared) and has a separate studio. For Anna, unused to being alone for long stretches—away from family, friends, and even the voices on television—the first few days, with the month stretching ahead, were off-putting, even uncomfortably quiet. But becoming uncomfortable may well be part of reacquainting yourself with your writing. It forces focus, or refocusing. Ten years ago, VSC had one shared computer available for sending e-mail, and a common phone was located near the administrative offices, though you needed to purchase a phone card to place calls. In other words, Anna was cut off and had to choose whether to communicate with the outside world. And that was a very good thing for her writing, because as useful as conveniences like the internet are, they can be distractions. Inconvenience creates realignment, and writing becomes the only thing of import in the list of things to do today.
But a residency isn’t really inconvenient, for someone cooks and cleans for you (Anna’s fondness for smoked Gouda stems from VSC). And now the VSC studios are wireless, and we all have cell phones. In fact, a writing residency helped Anna understand how that necessary tasks like housecleaning may be inconvenient for the writer. And it was a reminder of how fruitful unnecessary excursions can be: to see moose drinking from a stream at dusk, to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream where it’s made, to visit the Trapp Family Lodge. Even the local post office and resale shop become destinations to reward a productive writing day. The writing residency allows a writer to recalibrate, accelerate, and become newly fascinated.
Situated at the easternmost end of Cape Cod is one of America’s great artist enclaves, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown—or just P-town, the verbiage seemingly favored by locals and visitors alike—has been home to John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, and Norman Mailer. It was a scholarship for a weeklong workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony that brought Doug to P-town in early August this year.
A week is an in-between timeframe. The workshop group can cover more than in a weekend, and there’s just enough time to have the opportunity for the group to feel like a group. But it’s intense; it’s hard work. There’s not a lot of time for meandering about town, though there are numerous restaurants within walking distance, as you fend for your meals.
In the workshop itself, the group took some time to review the implements in the writer’s toolbox: narrative, plot, character, dialogue, atmosphere, and so on. Quickly, it became evident that narrative would be the overriding focus of the week’s discussions, workshop sessions, and exercises. As the residents dissected each other’s novels and stories during the week, Doug could imagine a firm, but quiet, authorial voice perched somewhere behind him, intoning over and over again: narrative, plot, character, dialogue, atmosphere, but the greatest among these is narrative. At least for this week.
In any workshop situation, the workshop leader sets the agenda. In “Fiction: The Protagonists,” Marita Golden knew what she wanted to accomplish with the emerging writers, each of whom had submitted roughly 30 pages and, therefore, were in the midst of writing projects. Narrative was Marita’s agenda. For the purposes of the week, Doug thought of narrative as different from authorial exposition. Instead, narrative became defined as those moments in a novel or story when the author intervenes to commingle with the character, allowing the character to reveal something. Marita said, “Narrative tells the reader the weight and meaning of things.” Doug is deep into a character-driven spy novel manuscript, and is working to convey the weight and meaning of things. Because he’s working with an action-driven plot, Marita’s statement about the relationship of narrative to character especially resonates: “The beauty of narrative is that when I don’t know my character, it helps me to find out.” Focusing on narrative casts novel writing as creative problem solving. Narrative helps the writer answer the most pressing questions, and those answers move the project forward.
Weekend, weeklong, and month-long residencies aren’t necessary. Writers can write without the structure they provide and can complete projects without getting away. And a writing get-away may not work well for every writer, every writing project, or every stage of a given project. Sometimes, a writer just can’t get away from his or her job or family, and some writers don’t need a respite in order to jumpstart or complete a poetry collection or a novel. Some writers are able to recalibrate as needed, all the while going about their day-to-day lives. Thus far, our participation in residencies has been rare for all these reasons at different times. Still, the writing residencies we have done have created spaces in our lives that we could not have traversed by any other means.