Sunday, July 06, 2008

The summit of Sharp Top

Sydney and I have been visiting her parents in Roanoke, Va., this weekend, and today we took a Sunday-morning excursion to the summit of Sharp Top at the Peaks of Otter, on the Blue Ridge Parkway north of town.

We briefly considered the 90-minute one-way hike to the summit from the parking lot:But cooler heads opted to take the bus instead:The bus takes you up a one-lane switchback road to a turnaround 1,500 feet short of the summit -- still a good half-hour's walk.I became "Big Chief Bring-'Em-Up-Rear," as my father-in-law called me, and from time to time took a photo of the path behind:This stone overlook was welcome, as it made a good resting place, but that was its only use this morning because the clouds surrounding the mountain hadn't lifted:My father-in-law reminisced as we climbed about the weeks he spent in 1948 dismantling old barns on this mountain as a National Park Service summer employee.The mist got thicker as we ascended:This was a welcome sight:We think the stone house at the summit was built in the 1930s by the same New Deal-era work crews that built the switchback road and most of the Blue Ridge Parkway:The summit is all rock, so the stone house built upon it is downright biblical in its solidity. I wouldn't want to spend a winter in there, though:My mother-in-law, age 83, was determined to make it all the way to the topmost point of the path, and did, but the gnats, wasps and other flying critters that beset her just after I snapped this photo made her reluctant to linger for a portrait at the summit:We retraced our steps downward, back into the mist:When we reached the stone overlook on the downward trip, we found that the folks ahead of us had been arrested by a deer grazing contentedly only a few feet away:The deer kindly posed for some photographs. The deer in congested Eastern parklands have grown too tame for their own good, alas, as they've lost their necessary skittishness around highway traffic, and the "people food" they mooch hurts their digestion:Another welcome sight, a few hundred feet downhill, was our bus driver, Mr. Ronnie Mitchen:Mr. Mitchen enjoys his captive audience, stopping the bus a couple of times on the way down the mountain to tell stories:He said his grandfather, who died this past Easter at age 98, helped build the switchback road we were traveling on. This was good for years of family comedy, as Ronnie would ask, "Granddad, how come you made that road so narrow?" and his grandfather would reply, "If we had known you'd be driving on it, we'd have made it as wide as U.S. 460."On the way down, though I wasn't fast enough to get photos of them, we saw more deer, a group of wild turkeys (two adult females and a number of youngsters), and a male black bear that scrambled out of the road just ahead of us. Mr. Mitchen said he wasn't surprised by the bear, as he had seen a hawk that morning -- and on days when he sees a hawk, he always eventually sees a bear, too.

Back at the Peaks of Otter Lodge on the parkway for lunch, I took this photo of the mountaintop we just visited. Sharp Top isn't the tallest of the Peaks of Otter, but the starkly beautiful crag at the top has been a tourist draw since the 19th century:This excursion was my idea, and I told Sydney later these photos are proof that I'll climb a mountain to get out of going to church.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The end of Justice Talking

I'm sorry to hear that the excellent National Public Radio show Justice Talking is no more, its nine-year Annenberg grant having run out.

To paraphrase the old Women's International League for Peace and Freedom poster: It will be a great day when National Public Radio shows get all the money they need and Rob Schneider has to apply for an Annenberg grant to make a movie.

The Fly on the opera-house wall

"I actually might get you to this opera," Sydney says, and she's right. It's an opera of The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg, music by Howard Shore, libretto by David Henry Hwang, conducted by Placido Domingo.

While set in the 1950s, the opera apparently closely tracks Cronenberg's 1986 movie, rather than the 1958 Kurt Neumann movie (starring David Hedison and Vincent Price) and the 1957 George Langelaan story in Playboy that launched the franchise.

Actually, Sydney got me to one opera already in this lifetime: Jerry Springer: The Opera in London, starring David Soul. It was a stitch, and I even bought the T-shirt.

Metropolis found

The discovery of the only known copy of the complete three-and-a-half-hour cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis is big news for movie buffs -- and science-fiction movie buffs in particular.

Thanks to Lokke Heiss for alerting me, via the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts listserv.

Jack Speer and "The Atheism Issue"

I was sorry to hear of the death of science-fiction fan Jack Speer. I commend to everyone his pioneering history of fandom, Up To Now, written for distribution at the first World Science Fiction Convention in July 1939, when the historian himself was all of 18. (That Worldcon concluded 69 years ago today, in fact.) Up To Now is a 35-page PDF at the invaluable Speer's chapter headings include:

  • The First Staple War.
  • The Decline and Fall of the Era.
  • The Nature of Wollheim’s Dictatorship.
  • The Crucial Period.
  • The Undertow.
  • The Situation in the West.
  • The Order Begins to Crumble.
  • The Decline and Fall of Wollheim.

    Some indication of the pacing can be gleaned from the fact that "The First Months of 1938" is only the 17th of 28 chapters listed in the table of contents.

    Today I'm most interested in the chapter titled "The Atheism Issue," which I briefly excerpt here:
    When the November, 1937, Cosmic Tales carried, as what was to be the last of [Donald J.] Wollheim’s Phantaflexion columns, an article later reprinted in the first Science Fiction Advance as “Science Fiction and Religion,” it seemed that another bombshell had been dropped into fandom from the hand of the genial W. Some months later appeared “Anent Atheism and Stf” in Imagination!, which debated the possibly question-begging proposition that scientifictionists were scientifictionists because they were atheists, rather than atheists because they were scientifictionists,as Wollheim argued. ... It became customary for new correspondents to inquire each others’ religious stands, or to state them without inquiry, as a natural part of getting acquainted. ...

    Curiously, it never became a red-hot issue. ... the general sentiment seemed to be to avoid religious controversies before fandom as a whole, as being unpleasant and getting nowhere ...

    But perhaps the most important reason for the flat-falling of the atheism issue was lack of interest—lack of opposition! ... The only prominent fans known to acknowledge church beliefs were Catholic Baltadonis and Episcopalian McPhail, tho doubtless there were others. When the IPO got around to putting the question, agnosticism and kindred showed a definite, tho not overwhelming majority, with many
    of those on the other side of the line doubtful, tongue-in-cheek, or indifferent.

    In defense of religion little showed up. ...

    There wasn’t enough opposition to give any thrill from attacking the churchmen. So atheism was taken pretty much for granted, and fandom rocketed merrily on its way. But there is no guarantee that the controversy may not blaze forth again.
    No, indeed -- though, in my experience, atheism is still taken pretty much for granted, in science-fiction circles. When I recently told a group of sf cronies, for example, about a Potlatch panel titled "Coming Out as Atheist," I got in return a half-dozen confused expressions. Many atheists in the field can't imagine the need to "come out" as atheist, since that's the default expectation -- and certainly can't imagine the need to defend the position, or risk suffering hardship for publicly taking it.

    Speaking of the first Worldcon, check out the contemporary coverage in Time magazine, which notes that the sf magazines of 1939 average 150,000 readers apiece and pay 1 cent to 4 cents a word.

    Also, Speer's other major fannish writing project, the 1944 Fancyclopedia slang dictionary, is online here.
  • Is this StoryCorps account a bust?

    In a StoryCorps conversation with her niece, recorded in Cincinnati and subsequently aired on National Public Radio, a 94-year-old woman recalls her inflatable brassiere exploding during an airline flight in the Andes -- which apparently happened at least 70 years ago.

    At his urban-legends blog, David Emery wonders whether Betty Jenkins' experience was the inspiration for a half century's worth of unverifiable tall tales about exploding bras on airplanes, or whether it was merely one of the incidents that inspired those stories ("It may be that some urban legends grow from the seeds of the truth," says the NPR producer), or whether -- gasp! -- it maybe didn't actually happen to Ms. Jenkins at all. After all, when I'm 94, I'll probably have utterly persuasive memories of personally rescuing Princess Leia from the Death Star.