To Boldly Go

To Boldly Go

I’ve always been a bit anal about split infinitives–just ask the writers who worked for me on the magazine I edited–but I’ve also always been forgiving of the particular split infinitive in the title of this post. Recognize it?

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man [or one] has gone before.”

I’m a child of the space age. Where Sputnik created fear among members of our government, I was utterly fascinated. My lifelong love of space and flying came from Superman comics. I knew there were other planets with people on them. After all, hadn’t Jor-el and Lara put little Kal-el into a rocket and sent him to earth where he became Superboy then Superman? When Yuri Gargarin, Alan Shepherd, and John Glenn made their flights, I was completely hooked on the space program. In third grade I announced, with enthusiasm, I was going to be an astronaut. My classmates and the teacher laughed and taunted me for the rest of the year about my ridiculous statement. After all, girls couldn’t be astronauts.

I’m certainly glad that’s not true any more, but it took years for me to discover that along with those hot-shot, male pilots who became the Mercury Seven, there were women pilots who underwent the same training and in some cases exceeded the performance of the men–the Mercury 13. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several of them, and they were and are amazing women. They were ready, willing, and able to go, until a single congressman’s sexism dashed their dreams.

When I learned to fly, it wasn’t farm fields and towns I flew over. I was hurtling through the universe to other worlds. Flying got me as close as I could to space, and it wasn’t very close, but I reveled in it. Flying led to my job on an aviation magazine, and that job got me a press pass from NASA. I was there on April 12, 1981, when Columbia, STS-1, made the first trip to orbit. I trooped around with the reporters to all the photo ops, including taking pictures of the STS on its launch pad at night. Though I got eaten alive by mosquitos, it was a sight I’ll never forget.

I felt much better about being in awe of everything when I saw veteran space reporters as excited as children when that ship left earth, carrying with it my dreams of mining asteroids, building bigger, faster ships in orbit, establishing a permanent space station, everything that had made my imagination reel. I can still hear the roar of those rockets, feel the vibration of the ground, and see how the bright sky was made brighter.

I was home “sick” from work on January 28, 1986, with my eyes glued to the television to watch Challenger, STS-35, carry the first “everyday” citizen into space, a history teacher named Christa MacAuliffe. In that moment the humiliation of a third grader faded. A teacher, a history teacher, which I had once been, was going into space, but my dream didn’t die with her.

On my day off on February 1, 2003, I was rushing back from the grocery store to get home in time to see Columbia, STS-107, land–I tried to watch as many of the launches and landings as I could–when the report came over the radio of Columbia’s break-up in flight as it passed over Texas on its way to Cape Canaveral. I had to pull my car to the side of the road and wait until I was no longer overcome.

On July 8, 2011, in Florida on vacation and amid all the talk of the last Shuttle flight, I was in a car on the way to the Auto Train station in Sanford. Had it not been a cloudy day, we might have seen the plume of spent fuel marking that last flight into space. The space age has given us many advancements, and so in a car with a Smart Phone that looked so much like the communicators on Star Trek, I watched the countdown and the launch live. It wasn’t the same, but I could say I was there, that my fascination with STS had come full circle to a reluctant closure.

But I couldn’t watch today when Atlantis, STS-135, landed for the last time. I know we as humans will go on to explore space both in government ventures and private ones, but the thought of that incredibly beautiful glider never breaching the atmosphere again then returning to make a pinpoint landing was too much. The Shuttles were first and foremost aircraft, and, unlike the awkward but perfectly engineered Mercury and Apollo capsules, the Shuttle was something I could relate to as an aviator. It, too, was complex, one of the most complicated pieces of machinery in the world, but when I studied its controls and systems, I could see myself in the cockpit.

The 135 flights of STS resulted in innumerable accomplishments. Satellites placed in orbit have opened our eyes on the universe and shown us the toll we humans have taken on our planet. The Shuttle systems themselves, notably fly by wire and satellite navigation, are now standard on modern transport aircraft. Space medicine has led to improved patient care and treatment of diseases.

For those who think space flight is a waste of resources, I ask you, how can you limit our desire to explore? People have tried, like those who warned Columbus he’d fall off the end of the earth, but we persist as a people, as humans “to boldly go.” Every exploration on this world has resulted in casualties, and to stop exploring dishonors those who sacrificed. We have to look forward and outward.

I won’t see it, but some of the children who watched STS’ last flight will walk and live on Mars. Not long after that, cosmologically speaking, their children’s children will see a planet outside our solar system with their own eyes. And that’s something to look forward to.

Godspeed to Enterprise (the test vehicle that never made it to space) Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. You will always fly in my dreams.

Review of July 2011 eFiction Magazine

I stumbled across eFiction Magazine a little more than a month ago when I was looking for more periodicals to have on my Kindle. eFiction’s calling itself an “indie fiction” publication made me think back to the 1980’s when indie music was the rage. Punk and grunge musicians who couldn’t score mainstream recording contracts began to start their own labels, something made easier by the fledgling digital age. Similarly, indie (or independent) fiction tends towards new or emerging writers whose voices may not necessarily fit a specific, mainstream genre. (In reality, anyone who has self-published could consider their work indie fiction.)

eFiction takes this a step further, with on-line forums where contributors, aspiring contributors, and the editorial staff interact. I’ve never seen another on-line magazine do this, or print magazine, for that matter. They may be out there, but I’ve never seen it. I find it refreshing.

The July issue was downloaded to my Kindle while I was standing in some line at Walt Disney World, but I didn’t get a chance to “open” it until the Auto Train ride back to Virginia. And it was well worth the wait. I’ve finished the first three stories, which I’ll discuss a bit more below, and as with the June edition, my first, they were stories I know I’d never see in a literary magazine. For one, the stories are a bit unclassifiable, genre-wise. They have elements of horror or speculative fiction or fantasy, but you’re always left questioning if that’s the case or if you’re simply looking into another reality.

Take “Ozark Pixies” by Madison Woods. A woman is convinced she’s seeing pixies around her rural home, and her husband is about ready to call the “white coats” on her. One day she sees a pixie at the side of a road and wants so badly to prove to her husband that she’s not crazy that she hits it with her car. She only intends to stun it, but it’s mangled so badly she thinks she’s killed it. It’s when she shows her husband the mess she’s brought home that he really thinks she’s gone off the deep end. The woman takes the pixie to her barn, where the pixie recovers enough to latch onto the woman’s ear. The woman and the pixie come to an understanding, and the pixie convinces the woman to eat a carrot-like root the pixie digs up. The root turns out to be hemlock, and the woman is slowly being paralyzed. She begs the pixie’s forgiveness and for an antidote, and the pixie gives what could be forgiveness then places some seeds in the woman’s mouth and disappears. The story ends with the woman thinking, “I knew there was no remedy for hemlock. But she knew things I didn’t.” So, fantasy (pixies), horror (being slowly poisoned to death by a pixie), or suspense (was the woman really just hallucinating)? I’ve read it twice and can’t classify it, but that’s what made me like it.

The zombies in “A Bad Zombie Flick” by Nathanial Chambers are quite familiar to me–commuters moving in lockstep toward work. I lived that for too many years. I even related to the nonconformity of Chambers’ protagonist, who, though a new stock broker, still drives an old tank of a car and scoffs at the other commuters marching forward as one. Yet, we get a hint that things are not quite right when the man picks up his morning newspaper off the lawn. The lines for the columns are there but no words. He shrugs it off as a printing problem and heads to work. The next hint we get is when he’s in line at his favorite coffee shop and looks around at the blank faces of the people waiting in line for their turn with the barista. He notices, like the cars on the road, everyone moves forward precisely the same distance at precisely the same time. Now, the folks in line at my local Starbucks gave pretty vacant stares until that first hit of Caramel Macchiatto, but something about these folks leads our protagonist to declare when he’s before the barista that he no longer wants coffee. But he gets coffee, and in a nightmarish way that has to be read to be appreciated. Here’s a taste:  “The line moves, not forward but toward me. I can hear chairs scraping behind me and the shuffling of feet coming in my direction. I see two men at the doors; they appear to be standing guard. Panic seizes me. They are on me in seconds.” Afterwards, he gets back into his car and notices he has now fallen in step with everyone else–he moves his car the same distance the same time as everyone else and sips coffee from his travel cup exactly when everyone else does. Is this horror–the coffee scene in the shop could lead you to think it is–or fantasy because of the element of conformity taken to the unreal? Or did he merely fall asleep in the coffee shop and dream it all?

“Little Sisters” by Myra King tells the story of three sisters with a focus on the one their parents decided to name Myron. Myron is looking back on her life in her 90th year. She has broken her hip and contracted pneumonia and is in hospital recovering but thankful she has “no one left to mourn me.” I get the impression she is in a ward if not for indigent patients then certainly for people who have limited funds for health care. With her is a 15 year old pregnant girl on bed rest, and the knowledge that another older woman died overnight. The young girl is feeling guilty for not having spoken to the woman who has died. When the young girl begins to cry, Myron remembers how one of her sisters would cry every night. Then, she remembers she was her father’s last hope for a boy, hence “Myron,” and how her father tried to turn her into a boy by giving her boys’ toys. At first she delighted in the attention, but when her father had her collect caterpillars, which he then killed one by one despite her protests, she wants no more of him. Her father no longer paid her attention, and we suspect we know who was responsible for the drowning of her kitten, one he’d given her for her birthday. He turned his attention instead to another of her sisters, and the type of attention is more than obvious in this chilling account: “Father’s attention turned to my sister Roslyn, but he didn’t try and make her a boy. Later, with the sickening wisdom of hindsight, I knew it was more of a woman he was trying to shape.” Watching the young girl’s boyfriend come to visit her and discuss the problem pregnancy makes Myron remember how her mother died giving birth to her, then how a fire kills the father, leaving Myron and her sisters to the mercy of the foster care system. None of the sisters ever married. Myron became a nurse to “relieve the suffering of others while Margaret gave her life to care for Roslyn.” A coughing fit overcomes her and she hears “voices of comfort. Familiar voices. I sink back into the pillows, close my eyes, listen to those words, our three little sisters song once more played to the tune of my memories and the faltering of my breath.” Of the three stories, this is the one I could classify definitely as literary fiction, but it’s written in a way that engages you and makes you hope there will be people left to mourn you.

There are more stories in the July issue, but I’m savoring them. Slowly.

They Call it “Magic Kingdom” for a Reason

When I was a kid, my Sunday night ritual was to watch The Wonderful World of Disney. I begged to go to Disneyland, but for my family, going to California was the equivalent of interplanetary travel. I didn’t get to Disneyland until I was an adult in the mid-1970’s, and, boy, I took advantage of being at a conference in Anaheim. Back then you had tiers of tickets, and each tier would let you into progressively more rides. I went all out and got a ticket for every ride. And there I was, the only adult without a small child on all the rides (even the tea cup one), but, damn, I had the best time of my life.

Disneyland was, and is, compacted into a relatively small space compared to the sprawling Disney World complex outside Orlando, FL. In that way, Disneyland is cozier and doable in a day. Disney World is almost crass in comparison, reachable only by bus or other transportation if you stay at one of their “resorts” (Disney doesn’t use the word “hotel.”), and even taking one park a day, you can’t do it all. I know. I just spent the better part of six days there.

Disney World, to me, has always represented commercialism, tacky souvenirs, and overpriced everything, not to mention a Pollyanna-ish view of the world that’s stuck in the 1950’s. When Disney bought up a bunch of land near my hometown with the plan to build an American History park (complete with slave auctions in the 19th Century section), I was among those who lobbied against it. Of course, the Disney company had the last laugh. After abandoning the project, they sold the land to developers, and now about a gazillion cookie-cutter houses occupy the space, and the traffic we worried about is 10 times worse.

My previous experience with Disney World consisted of brief visits on weekends while I attended my agency’s management school in Palm Coast, FL. My training schedule put me there each year usually in mid-December or early January. (I know. The sacrifices.) That meant no lines. At all. So, when I decided to accompany the “grandkids” and friends to Disney World the week before the July 4 holiday, I had pretty much decided the time in Disney World was penance to make me appreciate St. Augustine Beach more.

But watching two-point-five year olds’ faces in the “It’s a Small World Ride” or seeing them hug the characters (sorry, “cast members”) with abandon, all my disdain fell away. (Me to Ollie: “Do you think we’ll see Mickey Mouse today?” Ollie: “Mickey is ebrywhere!” I mean, how freaking adorable is that?)

Oh, I hated the crowds. I hated the heat. I hated, detested, abhorred the lines. Maybe Disney pumps psychotropic drugs into the air you breathe to make you conform, but I had a good time. I had a great time. I spent too much money (Disney brainwashing), but it was a once in a lifetime occasion because those three kids will only be two-and-a-half and five months old (respectively) once; this was their one and only “first visit.” I know they’ll be back, probably multiple times, but the first time was, well, magical.