I see ghosts.

I like to find the ghosts when I travel, and learn what I can from them. They’ve always come to me, not as shivers in the nights, or flashes of fear or wails of terror. Rather they waft gently into my imagination, almost always in the daylight, often becoming characters standing in a queue in my brain, waiting to tell me their story.

img_3260The ghosts I see are often tired, sometimes sad, but seldom angry and never at me. Not once have they made me afraid.

“Listen. This is how it happened,” they begin. And if I am lucky and have some time alone to live within my head and listen to them, they tell me their stories. What they describe often surprises me, and I know from somewhere deep inside that I am not making up these tales.

I must work to hold on to what they say, because their words quickly become mist in my brain, disappearing as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere. Their stories are much like the memory of a dream, fading quickly as one wakes. If I manage to remember one or more of their narratives, inevitably that day will be one of the best days that I have on my trip.

img_3283I started out this journey in Marrakesh Morocco, one of the many places in the world where the ancient and the new co-exist peacefully. My lodging is inside the Medina, a medieval walled city in which the buildings blend together into a continuous whole with a maze of narrow roofless hallways and short tunnels providing access. Some of the walls nearest to my Riad, or place of lodging, exist in various stages of decay or demolition, giving this part of the Medina a touch of post-apocalyptic style.

Other tourists make their way through the maze, along with Moroccan men of all ages. More of these Moroccans are young than old, most are clad in jeans, often talking and joking with friends. There are less Moroccan women to be seen. The older ones move quietly with their eyes down, often wearing flowing clothes and traditional head coverings. The younger ones are more of a mix, sometimes blue jean clad and bareheaded, and laughing with friends of both genders. The ghosts of these walls are quiet, at least as I make my way through the crowds in the middle of the day. I wonder if there is too much noise and activity here for them to be able to make themselves known.

The Medina itself is so confusing to the uninitiated that an entire cottage industry arose provide guidance to lost tourists. Helpful, hopeful men will ask anyone looking foreign and vaguely confused where they are going, and then will proceed to direct them towards it and ask for payment. Some are more persistent and demanding than others, so the savvy tourists now keep their eyes firmly on their smart phones, following their own blue dots while they wave the entrepreneurs away.

img_3322Inside the buildings are ornate tiles and woodwork that reflect centuries old crafts from this region. Often the most beautiful of these are saved for the lovely courtyards found in the center of most buildings. Visitors quickly figure out that not only is the courtyard the most pleasing place to sit, it generally has the best internet reception, too. We fill the pretty courtyards in the public places, and the ghosts stay silent here as well. Now I wonder if maybe there are simply too many of them here for any one of them to make themselves known.

It is not until I and my travel companions are on the road, driving through the coastal dessert between Agadir and Essaouira, that the ghosts finally find me. As I stare out the window at the desolate landscape that reminds me of Western Kansas where I was born, I feel their gentle tug.

img_3366See us, they say. I look at the scraggly argan trees scattered around the rosy beige rocks and hard mud and I see a robed figure moving in the distance. I squint to see better, blink in the bright sun, and it is gone.

I look for more like it. None appear, but I’ve opened my mind now and I hear them in my head and feel their presence.

“We are the soft people, ” they say as I feel the flow of their movements, their clothes.

Not soft, I think. Not the way that soft implies weak, at least. My brain searches for a word that better translates what it is feeling. The gentle people? No, they are strong, surviving in an unforgiving environment. They are soft only like a well rounded rock that pounds the grain into flour, as opposed to the blade of a knife that cuts the meat. They are the “not sharp” people, except that sharp has other nuances related to intelligence in my native tongue. I search in vain for a purer word, one that only has the meaning that I seek, but the best I can come up with is the feeling of something hard that has been worn smooth by the very harshness in which it survives.

img_3346I ask them to tell me their stories, but they are beginning to fade already, much too soon. Perhaps it is because my concentration has wandered, seeking the perfect word, or maybe it is because my two travel companions in the front seat have begun to talk, bringing me out of myself. Or maybe these soft people have no words for me. Maybe with a language and culture so different from mine, they don’t even know how to start.

As they dissipate into the warm sun-filled air, I feel them go, a presence lighter than air as they move over the dessert ground.

“Your world may be harsh, but you are not mean people at all, ” I think. One, an old man who hobbles and is the last one left, turns to look straight into my eyes. He answers me clearly.

“We have no use for the mean people either,” he says. Then he too is gone.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetMy Way, That’s Why you Make the Trip and It’s an angry world in some places on my other blogs.)

 

Our brand is crisis?

14469652_564576230393957_3537145904902612686_nThere is nothing like coming back from vacation to help you see life through new eyes, particularly if you’ve been lucky enough to spend a chunk of time somewhere that is quite different from the world you inhabit on a daily basis. If you have such good fortune, you will likely be asking questions like these: Why do we move so fast? How come we are always going somewhere? Why do we get so antsy when we lose our almost constant input from numerous electronic sources? Okay, may I should just speak for myself when it comes to the antsy part, but you get the point…

I was also surprised at how difficult it was to receive almost no world news for days, and more surprised when I came back to the campaign rhetoric going on in my own homeland. My house was as comfy as ever. A salad from the local farmers market was still a treat. The wine we brought back was delicious. So what is everyone so upset about, I wondered. To hear the ads slathered around the swing state in which I live, we are suddenly on the verge of destruction. Quick, duck and cover. It’s awful, what-ever-it-is, and it’s coming fast.

Really?  Right before we left on vacation my husband and I happened to watch the movie “Our Brand is Crisis.” It came out in early 2016, stars Sandra Bullock (a favorite of mine) and Billy Bob Thorton and it tells the tale of two opposing U.S. campaign strategists as each tries to help a Bolivian candidate win the highest office in the land.

I found it a good movie, though not a great one. The characters are all well written and well acted, however the dirty tricks that make up most of the plot are only mildly interesting, and the overall tone has an odd moral ambiguity until the end, when it takes a sharp turn into easy schmaltz. I’m kind of okay with easy schmaltz, actually, but the transition is a little jarring.

I later learned that the movie was based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary about the real 2002 election in Bolivia.  If true, it’s a much sadder story than is conveyed, and the characters, in my opinion, should have been shown less as sexy and smart and more as ethically repugnant. But hey, that’s me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor about some things.

The movie came to my mind after I got back from vacation, because of its central premise which is conveniently placed in the movie’s title. If you want attention, if you want action, you need to persuade people that there is a problem. A big problem. It’s how you make people buy things. (Your acid reflux is serious.) It’s how you get them to donate money, and vote. Scaring people into doing things works.

The only problem is that you end up with scared people.

Image result for political ralliesThere are some places in the world that are almost literally on fire right now, but I don’t live in one of them and I bet you don’t either. Don’t get me wrong, I fully recognize that we have plenty of things in our society that are screwed up and that we need to fix. My list is probably different than yours, and quite possibly longer. (It’s that “not much of a sense of humor” thing.) But surely we can agree that we are not in a crisis. We really aren’t.

Others, many others with all sorts of beliefs, have a vested interest in convincing us that we are, but we can refuse to be manipulated by all of them. So please, take a breath. Look around. Find some small thing to appreciate in your life and then go ahead and find another. Once your feeling calmer about it all, consider tuning out the pundits who are determined to work you into a frenzy. The people of Bolivia would have made much better decisions if they had done so.

Now, once you’ve found that calm place, you should definitely vote. After that, the antacid tablets are optional.

(For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be AlrightWe need to talk about this, just maybe not so much, and Is it over yet?)

(For more vacation-inspired epiphanies see The Moon Rises on my c3 blog, Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria on my x0 blog, and That’s Why They Play the Game on my d4 blog.)

On the Road

What is your dream vacation? I’m headed out the door on mine, and it is surprising how few of these I have taken. I’m talking about going somewhere I’ve never been; somewhere far enough off well-traveled roads that no one I know has ever been there. Except for my travel companion, I won’t know a soul. I have no plans for what to do when I get there, and no real expectations for how this will turn out. There is enough time, a whole week, for exploring and relaxing and seeing what will happen.

The truth is that I love out of the way places. I keep tucking them into my books, from the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala in z2 to the to northeast corner of Greenland in d4. You can’t get too remote for my tastes.

charles-kuraltOn the other hand, my traveling companion, who is usually referred to as my husband, is noticeably agitated about this dive into the uncharted, combined with a notable lack of advanced reconnaissance.  I agree that it adds potential for problems, and I try to think of why such an adventure calls to me in a way that sight seeing and visiting loved ones and going and laying on a beach somewhere simply does not.

And I remember Charles Kuralt.

When I was a kid, we watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. On a good night, the broadcast would include a segment called “On the Road” where this older, balding guy would wander into some town in the middle of nowhere and, always, discover a fascinating story to tell. I loved him, loved his travels and loved his stories. One could say I’ve spent much of my life trying to become Charles Kuralt, and I don’t know why. I even seem to have moved to his home state of North Carolina.

What was the charm? Maybe it was finding something you could not predict. Perhaps it had to do with taking a step back from busy life, and enjoying, for example, the simple pleasure of watching 8000 dominoes fall over.  See for yourself in this video from 1983.

Will I make discoveries like this on my vacation into the unadvertised, non-simulated nooks into which I go? Oh, I hope so. I really hope so.

Good people doing what?

triumph“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” has got to be the best quote that no one actually ever said. That aside, most of us are looking at ourselves in the mirror these days and thinking that we are good people who are wondering what it is that we are supposed to be doing.

About what? Come on, you know. We all know what is happening out there. We just don’t want to think about it.

For one, the election is only about thirteen weeks away now and we sort of hope this will mostly go away after that. Some of us support Hillary with enthusiasm, other accept her as the best choice and think she will be okay. Most of us can’t imagine that she won’t win. After she does, this nonsense will stop, right?

Photo published for Protesters plan to build a wall to prevent Trump from speaking in DetroitAnd the people you know who support Trump say it is no big deal. Oh, come on, you do know some of them. Acquaintances, neighbors, relatives, probably nice people too. They don’t go to the rallies and scream obscenities at minorities, and they like other things about him that you kind of understand. He speaks his mind, he’s not slick. They say most of his supporters don’t focus on hate and that Trump himself doesn’t really feel that way. He won’t really act that way if he’s elected. The nonsense will stop then, right?

Will it? The Southern Poverty Law center calculates that the number of hate groups rose by 14% in 2015. Former KKK leader David Duke has announced that he is running for the open Senate seat in Louisiana to stop the “ethnic cleansing” of white people. The New York Times has just published a compilation of uncensored expressions of hate from Donald Trump supporters at his rallies. You can view it here.

Okay, so maybe we do have a teensie weensie bit of a growing hate problem in this country. What is is that good men (and good women) should be doing?

I’ve been struggling with this question for awhile. It seems to me that one good start is to seek out objective sources of information. Independent fact checkers do exist. In aggregate, they approach providing actual truth. Then, when we have real facts at our fingertips, we need to share the information. We all need to vote our consciences and help others get to the polls to do the same.

I think we need a zero tolerance policy for demeaning humor in general, and particularly for humor that targets those whom are forced to play the game of life on a more difficult setting. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about check out the link.) We need to remove name calling from our speech patterns. Check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website on teaching tolerance. (Of course, they’d love a donation from you while you are there.)

change2We need to take a few slow breathes and say “this is not the world I want.” Whatever our personal politics are,  surely we can agree that throwing rocks at each other is a bad idea. As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we wish to see.

In 1770 the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke did say “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one.”

In 1867 the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill did say “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Okay, maybe neither one is quite as pithy as the fake quote at the beginning, but we all get the point.

 

 

 

Positive Waves for a Happy 4th

Nothing exists, at least not as solid matter. Push a theoretical physicist to describe what is and you are going to hear a lot about waves and particles.  If you push her further, she’s going to concede that at some very basic level the particles are really waves too. Yep, it looks like it’s all waves, man. Nothing but waves.

The character Oddball, Donald Sutherland’s goofy hero in Kelly’s heroes, might have had it right with his preoccupation with negative waves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out these short fun excerpts from the classic movie. Better yet, check them out if you do know what I am talking about.

Which brings me to music. Music is made of waves, big fat waves of oscillating matter, which, as we just discussed, is nothing more than teeny-tiny waves. So we have waves making waves, and its a very good thing, because music helps us deal with all that theoretical physics. It turns out that any wave can be described by three attributes: frequency, phase and amplitude.

So, what makes someone an excellent singer? Three of us got into this recently, and one came down firmly on the side of range. Can he hit the high notes? Another advocated for pitch. Does she hit that perfect A at exactly 220 hertz? I pushed for vastness, a voice that fills the void.

axlroseprivateRange person, who it turns out really cares about frequency, used the example of Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon as one of the all time greats. You can see for yourself which popular singers had the most range at a fascinating post called “The Vocal Ranges of the Worlds Greatest Singers.” Mariah Carey wins for high notes, while Prince takes the male honors. Low note ability goes to Axl Rose with Nina Simone winning for the females. Sheer range honors go to Axl with Mariah in close second. Kevin Cronin isn’t mentioned.

Pitch person holds that perfectly hitting the notes exactly right makes for the most pleasing vocals, but when pressed for who actually could do that, the most recent example he could think of was Bing Crosby. There is reason he had trouble finding more examples, as true perfect pitch is extremely rare. Other singers besides Bing who may have it (or have had it) include Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Yanni and, once again Mariah Carey. At least that is the claim made on this Mental Floss post called 10 people with Perfect Pitch.  This is, by the way, an attribute that involves a combination of phase and exact frequency.

mariah-careyMy examples of great singers included the young Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and Adele. Both of these ladies make me feel less alone in the universe thanks to the sound waves  they create, even though I know that I am mostly just talking about their amplitude. I found this list of top 20 singers with the most powerful voices and Adele came in at 18 and Gracie didn’t even get mentioned.  Josh Groban and Whitney Houston made the top ten, as did, once again Mariah Carey. Guess I’m going to have to start listening to more Mariah Carey.

Great singing, of course involves being able to do all three well. A lucky crowd at the Lincoln Memorial was treated to this beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner a few days ago by Star Swain, an assistant principal from Florida. She has range, she has pitch, she has power, and all her waves are positive. Oddball would have loved it, as did those who had the good fortune to hear her. Enjoy, and happy Independence Day to all!

 

 

 

 

Stand By Me: loyalty versus all kinds of other things

Does anyone doubt that a real friend is someone who will stand by you, no matter what?

Does anyone doubt that there are times to walk away from a friend?

maybe 1We hold both statements as self-evident truths and seldom trouble our souls with the contradiction that is implied. Yet in personal and public life we see this interplay at work, and never more than in an a messy election year.

Publicly, word has it that the Bush family places a high value on loyalty, and an insult to one is an insult to all. Witness the family banning together to shun the current GOP nominee, and almost unthinkable act for a blood line that has produced two presidents for that party. I’m no  great fan of any of them, but I remain oddly moved by their loyalty to each other.

The coin falls on the other side with the Trump family’s former butler and current unpaid historian, who was quickly described by Trump’s campaign as some crazy old guy the family barely knew after the “crazy old guy” was discovered to be posting really crazy stuff on Facebook. Hard to find an admirable approach in that mess, but walking away from the friendship was probably better than standing by it.

And in our personal lives? Yes, there are friends we no longer click with or enjoy. There are people we thought of as friends who it turns out we didn’t really know. There are friends who would take too much of our time or money, or at least more than we care to give, which makes us wonder how the strong the friendship was to begin with. Would they even ask that much of us if they were really our friends? And then there are those who do bad things, sometimes even awful things, to us or others and no matter how sorry they are we can’t let it go.

Plenty of people in the news these days that leave me wondering what are their friends thinking right now?

True voice 3And yet — in spite of growing apart, and selfishness on either side, and ethics and screw-ups — there is something so simple and compelling about the idea of “I will always be there for you.” The very concept takes us back to our childhoods. Does it have a place in adult life?

To me it is the essential kernel of a romantic relationship. It is the baseline of parenthood, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and of other close family relationships as well. It is what separates true friendships from social relationships, and it makes it apparent how unusual true friends are. Having someone, anyone, who will stand by you is rare and precious.

Maybe that’s why we all enjoy the simple lyrics and hypnotic base of the 1961 Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me”. I referred to the song in z2, and just finished updating the music page on this blog to include the following. It’s still running through my head. Enjoy the video at the end.

ben-e-kingMy character Alex is a nice man, and he loves his wife, but he isn’t particularly romantic, at least not in the classical sense. When he thinks of their relationship, in many ways he is more impressed by their enduring friendship than he is by their romance. And when in Chapter 18 he needs to reach Lola with a song, and enlist her cooperation with a plan he has, he turns to this classic, as shown in the excerpt below.

Alex had learned to tolerate Lola’s telepathic abilities, but as the group gathered up their work to head back to the tiny hotel in Punta Gorda, he realized that he could do better. Why not actively use her talents at times to make both of their lives easier? According to what she had told him, all humans project emotions and to some extent also project the thoughts that drive those emotions. In other words, everybody talks. But hardly anyone listens. Some one percent of the population had vague, undeveloped receptive abilities, Lola had said, and some tiny fraction of that, through desire, practice and circumstance, crossed over into being fully adept receivers.

A little over a year ago, Lola had made just such a crossing. Which meant that now he could send information to her, but not get an answer. Think about it, Alex laughed to himself. In some ways isn’t that every husband’s dream? He can tell his wife things and not have to listen to a word back?

Alex supposed that was a less than admirable thought… but hey, a man thinks what he thinks, and fortunately Lola’s ethics were such that she generally stayed out of his head and let him think in peace. But knowing how much his people-avoiding wife was going to hate the idea of having three unexpected houseguests, and how much better she would deal with it if she had all the warning possible, Alex tried for the first time to actually get Lola’s attention. She said images worked well, so he imagined a picture of himself jumping up and down waving a large bright yellow flag. Look. Look over here. I need to tell you something. This is important. I’m going to totally mess up the rest of your holidays with the kids there and everything by bringing three strangers and two ancient artifacts home with me and I really need you to flow with this.

Then he remembered. Music was one of the easiest items to transmit and receive. What was a song that Lola liked? That he liked? His subconscious mind found it for him, and he hummed and whistled Ben E. King’s anthem of loyalty “Stand by Me” over and over as he helped to load up the car. Of course, he’d follow up with an honest-to-god phone call once he got to the better reception at the hotel, but with any luck by then Lola would already know and be in a frame of mind to help him.

I’ll bet you can’t sit still, or keep from smiling, as you watch this video that celebrates both Ben E. King’s original song and the movie of the same name.

 

The time machines all around you

spring2The world, our world, is filled with magic when we are willing to use a broad brush to define enchantment. And why not? We touch upon telepathy and magic charms, natural shape shifters and mysterious potions, if you open your eyes wide enough in the aquarium or the pharmacy to see the correlations.

But what about that old science fiction standby of time travel? Surely there is no substitute for the cranky old machine in the professor’s garage that will take us to see dinosaurs or aliens inhabiting our world? Maybe, maybe not.

Is a trip to Cuba in 2016 a journey back in time? Is visiting a research lab at a tech firm a jaunt into the future? How about finding a box in the attic? Looking into a newborn’s eyes? Ah yes, time machines all around.

spring3Last week, I discovered a new one, driving from North Carolina to Tennessee. I’m spending my first spring in North Carolina at about 3000 feet above sea level, and have admired the many flowering trees as they burst into bloom. I already know that the full foliage of summer makes for my least favorite season in my new home, and I’ve watched with a little sadness as summer begins at my house.

Then I discovered, to my delight, that at 6000 feet up the little tiny leaves are just beginning to curl outward and the floral fireworks display is only starting. That’s right. It is a full three week trip back in time just driving up over the state line.

But you’re not really going back in time, you say. True. The calendar has not changed. However it looks every bit as if I had, and, in at least some branches of physics, reality is what the observer sees, not what the instrumentation of another says.

GreenlandLater, as we drove back down to lower elevations, I remembered a book I read while researching d4. In Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland she suffers from a heart condition that prohibits her from living in the high mountain terrain that she loves. Then she discovers that moving northward in latitude is the equivalent of climbing higher in altitude, without the oxygen issues. No, she’s not really higher above sea level in Greenland, but the plants and animals and lichens all make it look like she is, and she’s happy.

Sunday, I was back in the full flowering glory of spring, and I was happy too. Who is to say that’s not time travel.  Certainly not me.