History at its most exciting

Sometimes you have to go to one place to learn something fascinating about another.

When I was in school, I didn’t enjoy history. It took me years to figure out that some stories of the past are intriguing, even if those tales never seemed to be covered in my history classes. Ancient civilizations, distant lands and forgotten peoples all amazed me with surprises, while everything in school seemed no more than a predictable, boring parade of Western Civilization’s wars, conquests and discoveries.

Later, I would learn that my own culture is also filled with such tales, as marginalized peoples and quiet heroes of all types faced small human dramas that seldom made my history books but, in my opinion, should have. Decades after my last history final, I came to understand that history is these thousands of fascinating stories woven together in the way that got us to where we are now.

IMG_5531My love of poorly understood tales from the past would lead to a fascination with the many advanced cultures in my hemisphere that were demolished by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That lead to a burning desire to visit Machu Picchu, and a few weeks ago I finally got to do so. The whole trip was amazing, and I’ll be posting more about it soon. But this isn’t about that.

While I was in Peru, I got asked what I knew about the massive Maya discovery being made in the Petén region of Guatemala. What??

“Oh yes,” I was told. “It is so big and amazing that soon people will want to visit it instead of Machu Picchu.”

Really? How could I have missed that.

Well, it turns out it never made much of a splash in the U.S. press. Then, I was traveling without my laptop, and trying to use no data on my phone, so my usual sources of news were gone. Instead, I was glancing at newspapers in Spanish as I walked, scanning frantically for pictures of Trump and/or nuclear clouds, in hope of seeing neither. I hadn’t looked for much else.

Once I got back, the story about the great discovery in Guatemala was easy to confirm.

“Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed,” National Geographic  informed me.

The famous Maya site of Tikal is just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis Credit: Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

“A vast network of lost Maya cities discovered deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala could rewrite the history of the ancient civilisation, experts say. Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Pioneering lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning technology was used to map 800 square miles from the air, revealing a “treasure map” of the Maya ruins,”  The Telegraph informed me all the way from the UK.

Most enticing of all  was this report from the London Times.

“The ancient Maya had no metal tools, no wheels, no cattle and no pack animals. They lived in a swamp-ridden and storm-battered region of central America where the landscape seemed resistant to the presence of humans.

Yet, boy, could they build. An aerial survey using lasers to penetrate the vegetation of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed more than 60,000 structures, including pyramids, canals, fortifications and causeways stretching from city to city.

Historians say that the finds point to a society of city states like the world of classical Greece, but with a population of between 8 and 13 million people living in a rainforest the size of Italy.”

Wow.

Back in 2012, I did a deep dive into the Petén region of Guatemala as it was in the late 1600’s, as I created an imaginary Maya woman to design the clever puzzle that my modern day treasure hunters would discover and attempt to understand. As Nimah took shape in my mind, she developed her own clear voice, and soon her two sons did as well. I spent a happy year in their company.

This is how the resulting book, z2, begins:

When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and because her people kept fine records, there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more organized. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Nimah, of course, is fiction, but she left traces of herself in my brain and heart, as most of my characters do. I’m happy to discover that her world was larger, richer and more complicated than I knew, and I look forward to hearing of the many true tales to be discovered near her home. To me, this is history at its most exciting.

It is more than a little ironic that I had to go all the way to Peru to learn about it.

 

A sense of time

I had a boyfriend in high school who could tell you the time of day off the top of his head within ten minutes or so. He was an aspiring actor (back then) and attributed his unnatural skill to his performer’s sense of timing. Ummm ….. maybe.

I have a husband now who can do the same thing. He’s a former math teacher who considers it an ability derived from his close relationship with numbers. Well …… maybe that, too.

I have less of a sense of time. Hours pass unnoticed when I write, minutes last forever as I stare at a blank page. I attribute this to living more inside my head than out of it. But if hours and minutes confound me, years and decades are worse. Today, I reviewed a book called Deep Sahara. It takes place in 1980, which I shrugged off as being nearly current fiction when I began reading the book. Then characters who lived during World War Two began to play a role.

Geez, WWII was like 80 years ago. What are they doing still alive? Wait, 1980 was nearly 40 years ago, now, wasn’t it? Yeah, it was.

My sense of time (or lack thereof) is front and center this week as I vacation at an old house on the beach owned by my husband’s family. The house was built in the 1850’s and the deck looks out over Charleston Harbor, and directly at Fort Sumter. The first shots of the civil war rang out here, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this federal fort in April 1861. Family members who are history buffs love this fact. I find wars sad, not fascinating, and secretly think the view would be so much more pleasant if it didn’t have a reminder of a bloody, painful conflict right in the middle of it.

The house itself contains an old and a new part. The old portion is lovingly maintained as it looked in the 20’s and 30’s when this was a small beach shack used to escape the summer heat of the city. Creative relatives have decorated the walls with tools used to handle the ice blocks that provided precious refrigeration back then.

The rest of the house is circa early 1990’s, built after hurricane Hugo tore through the area. Parts of this are deemed “worn and in need of replacement” as opposed to historical. The cynic in me thinks that if they just leave the indoor-outdoor carpet on the stairs another forty years, it will become too treasured to remove. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

As I sit here studying the various ages of what I can see, I think I’ve figured out my problem with time. I’m trained as a geologist, fascinated by the formation of the earth 5 billion or so years ago, and intrigued by the first forms of life to emerge over four billion years later.

Old? Rocks formed from tiny creatures in the inland Cretaceous sea are a 100 million years old. In my home state of Kansas, we used that 100-million-year-old limestone to build houses in the mid 1800’s, about the time when shots were being fired over this beautiful harbor and you could have watched Fort Sumter being attacked from this deck.

Maybe I would care more about this if 150 years weren’t mere seconds to a geologist. To those who study the earth, everything that’s happened since 10,000 years ago is pretty much considered debris. It could be I don’t lack a sense of time, I just have another way of looking at it.

(For more of my recent thoughts on time, see my post Spending Time.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How much for a wall?

Big numbers kind of all sound the same to us. If you tell me something is 100 million miles away, or 100 trillion miles away, it gets the same reaction. Far. Damn far. Never mind that one is a million times more far than the other.

No where is this more apparent than in government spending. A national budget of 4 trillion dollars strikes me as outrageous because I think of it in terms of my own spending. Which is silly, because it is the combined spending of over 300 million people.

But wait, not all those people pay taxes, you may say, and you’d be right. It turns our about one hundred million (see, there is another big number) tax returns were filed for 2016 by people (or families) who made enough to pay taxes. I like this nice round number, and if you’ll let me stick with round numbers we can have some fun. To keep it simple, I’m just going to call each tax paying entity a person.

The US government takes in over 3 trillion a year, and nearly two-thirds of that is from individual income tax according to The Balance. (Only ten per cent of it comes from corporate taxes). Where does it go?

In order to answer that, first you have know that most people are paying into social security and medicare, which is counted as revenue and shouldn’t be. For decades now, the government has taken money for social security and medicare out of everyone’s paychecks, above and beyond their taxes. The justification was that the government was saving this money for us, and we’d get it back with interest in our old age. It sounded like a good plan, because heaven knows most of us are lousy at saving money.

Only it turns out the government is every bit as bad at it. Yup, every year the government calls it “revenue” and spends it, just like we would. This means the government has to take the trillion coming in now for social security and medicare and use it to pay about about two and half trillion out. Not possible.

As a result, some are now describing social security as an entitlement we need to eliminate. To be accurate, it is money that belongs to some of our citizens and never should have been spent to begin with. I don’t think absconding with the pension fund is correct behavior for anyone, including a government.

So, our income taxes cover the other one and half trillion that the government should have tucked away but didn’t. According to National Priorities, another 300 billion goes to the equivalent of paying off the interest on our credit cards, or in this case, the interest on our national debt. This one isn’t optional either. Add in a few other firm commitments, and about 2/3 of the money you give the government is being used to just hold us even on what we’ve already done. (It’s called non-discretionary spending.)

What do you say we get rid of these big numbers?

Each of us tax payers forks over 20,000 a year, on the average. You know if you if pay more or less, but to keep it simple, let’s assume you and I are average. What does the government do with our $20,000 every year?

It spends about $13,000 dealing with past spending, as described above. Yikes.

The remaining $7000? $4000 goes to our military. For purposes of this discussion I’m going to treat this a necessary given, although I recognize there is ample room for argument about whether the average person needs to be contributing $4000 a year to our defense.

We fight over the remaining $3000. That’s right, the average taxpayer sees about 1/6 of what they contribute go for all of the other programs from school lunches to space launches to research on disease control. We use it to fund highways, hire diplomats, check for spoiled meat, and enforce environmental regulations. We use it to deliver mail, care for national parks and distribute all those welfare checks that certain segments of the population rail against. We run our government, and the good, bad and ugly parts our country, with 1/6 of what we take in.

Incredible isn’t it?

You’d think if we could do that, we could have avoided getting into this mess in the first place.

It does make that $3000 precious, though. How would you like to see it spent?

Do you really want a 20 billion dollar ugly wall along the border with Mexico that every informed person agrees will do little to nothing to protect our borders? That will be $200 apiece please.

 

I started a club!

Every kid wants to start a club, complete with a hidden clubhouse, their own rules and lots of secrets. That childlike fascination is part of what led me to create the fictional x0, a secret society for telepaths of all ages.

It was even more fun having my hero Alex found his own organization in z2. His group isn’t secret; it’s for anyone trying to understand the nature the time. He’s quite proud of his club, and I happen to know it will play a pivotal role in developing scientific philosophy about time travel. Of course, that’s because Alex, his club, and this particular future all live inside my head.

Last week, I crawled out of my own brain to fulfill a childhood fantasy in real life. I started a club, or, to be more precise, a Meetup group.

Now, I’m not a particularly social person, but I recognize that writing is an almost brutally solitary activity and contact with other writers helps maintain perspective and promote sanity. I’ve been in a lot of writer’s groups; some worked well and others were a waste of my time. Those that worked best for me consisted of a small group of people, all committed to writing and all willing to share their thought processes with others.

I liked one group I joined after arriving in the Asheville area, but found it difficult to attend, due to it’s location and time. It disbanded in December, and the original organizer on Meetup sent around a note basically saying “anyone at all want to pick this up?” I was in the process of deleting the email, sent to all 192 members, when something in the back of my head said “wait”.

For the price of a Meetup fee of $15/month, I could have my childhood wish. I could pick the location and time. I could make up the rules. Hell, I could even add a secret handshake if I wanted. I don’t think I want, but, you never know.

So for the last week, instead of blogging, I’ve been creating my own vision of a writers group. Everyone in it will be an active fiction writer with a work in progress. We’re going to meet in the daylight, at a coffee shop that is easy to get to, is affordable for all and has plenty of parking. We’re not going to charge money, critique each other’s work, have prompts or assignments or, God-forbid, homework, and we’re absolutely not going to have guest speakers. All those things are fine if you want them, they just don’t fit my vision.

Out of 192 members, near as I can tell all but a few dozen have turned off notifications and have no idea they ever belonged. Of those remaining, a handful are not so happy with my changes. A couple have quit. All well and good. That leaves me with a potential couple of dozen people out there, more than enough, and if this works as well as I hope it will, we’ll find others.

If you happen to live near Asheville, check out Write and Thrive for Fiction Writers, an outgrowth of the original Write and Thrive Salon. My new clubhouse is the Hopey and Company Coffee Shop in Black Mountain, and we meet the third the Saturday of the month at noon. If you are nearby and this sounds good to you, I’d love to see you there.

 

 

 

Designing your own book cover, part 3

My biggest disaster in cover design came with z2.

By the time I finished writing it, I had two books out there with covers I loved. Yet, this new novel was my most complicated. It was about the the nature of time and special relativity, but it was also about white nationalists and immigration and the hunt for a Maya treasure. It touched on Guatemala and Belize and yet took place mostly at a high school in Houston. This odd plot all came together, at least for me, but I hadn’t a clue of what I wanted my reader to see on the cover.

So I turned to three very different people to help me. One was Jen from Mother Spider, who had produced the two covers I already loved, but she had done those with a good deal put of input from me. This time, she read over my plot description, and took her first at stab at creating a cover from scratch. Her work is above and I still think it’s pretty good. If the boy’s back pack hadn’t looked to me like the profile of a face, I might have used it without consulting anyone else and my life would have been so much simpler.

But because I didn’t like the backpack, I involved a second person, my husband. He had no particular qualifications other than he knew me and what I like, and the protagonist was modeled after him. I thought that combination might produce a flash of brilliance, but I should have factorized in what would matter to him or anyone in his shoes. He didn’t like the old and balding Alex holding the clock. He wanted a young and athletic Alex on the cover. A good-looking Alex. Sigh …. Of course he did. For some reason he also didn’t like the blue. I found the basketball guy and changed to a green but I was at a loss for what else to do. So I asked my sister for ideas.

Now, my sister is a successful business woman who runs her own travel company and has handled all of her own graphics and marketing for years. She’s very good at this stuff.  Within minutes of asking I had coins to symbolize treasure and Maya statues that she was quite pleased to have found and I sent them off to Jen who produced the cover to the upper right. It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t sure we were going in the right direction. So I asked my sister for more ideas, and that was the real problem.

I was sort of like someone who wants to fire a few BB’s at a squirrel to scare it off the lawn and gets handed an AK-47. Before I knew it I had dozens if not hundreds of relevant images and so many cover ideas that my head hurt. Take a look at a couple of the wild combinations. Oh, and my sister loved the blue and hated the green. Ahh….

My book was ready to be published on Kindle and graphic artist Jen was understandably running out of patience as I kept coming up with ever more convoluted combinations, none of which made me happy. I had to make a decision. I picked something that I thought would please everyone a little and my novel first appeared with the cover below.

It took me no more than a few days to accept that I did not particularly like it. I didn’t want blue or green on the cover and now that I thought about it I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up having to choose between the two. I liked the old bald Alex and his glowing clock and I didn’t want Maya statues or coins and never had.

So I came back to Jen, apologized for the massive confusion and offered her more money to try it again. We talked about what mattered to me, and she produced the cover to the right. It was far closer to what I wanted. The only part I didn’t like was the odd gold border, but I decided I’d been picky enough and could live with it.

Luckily for me, when Jen would work on the cover for my next book, she would notice the border and ask me how we’d ended up with it when the others had no such thing. Good question.  She and I would decide together to take one last stab at getting this book the cover it deserved. The final, final result is to the left. Isn’t it gorgeous? It took over a year and countless failed drafts, but now it is my favorite of all five.

I’m pretty sure that one main lesson here is to not involve too many cooks, no matter how adept they are or how much you like them. Another is to go ahead and persist until you are satisfied. A book cover, for better or worse, is how the world will see your creation. If you love the creation but don’t like the cover, this is not a good thing. Be picky.

Another important lesson I got out of this experience was to not to hang on to an idea, trying to force it to work. I should have gotten rid of those coins, statues, colored letters and gold border before any of them saw the light of day.

It was a helpful lesson once I started designing the cover for book six. I was sure I needed a female judoka on the cover, and I tried so hard to find a model that matched my character. None did, but this young woman came the closest. I played with variations for weeks before I recognized that I was trying to make something fit that wasn’t meant to be. Once I gave up on the idea and moved on, I found the direction I really wanted to go.

(For more on this topic see Designing your own book cover, part 1 and Designing your own book cover, part 2.)

 

 

A better word than hope?

Soon after I began writing my third novel, I realized that it was going to center around the theme of hope. I’d already gone with such lofty themes as peace and joy in my first two novels, so when it came to the big words in life, I felt like I was on a roll. It helped that my protagonist was an aging athlete, and I wanted to him to find the one thing that I’d noticed aging robbed humans of most often.

But hope wasn’t quite the word I meant, any more than peace and joy had been with the first two books. I was trying to talk about refusing to let go of fears and animosity from the past, and refusing to give others a chance based on old experiences. And I was talking about the belief that humans cannot change, that they cannot learn to be, or choose to be, better.

Having already written two stories that took place on opposite sides of the globe, I decided to place this third tale more or less halfway in between. That took to me to the southern reaches of North America; to Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico. It also to took me to my own home in Houston. “Hope” looked to be a perfect theme as my research led me to the history of the civilizations and their clashes in this heated part of the globe.

By now, I knew I was doing a rainbow with my books. This was fueled by my love of physics and my fascination with light (or more correctly the electromagnetic spectrum) and I was already planning to give light waves a starring role in this third story. The fact that rainbows had been used over the years to symbolize racial harmony, and LGBT acceptance, was an added plus.

The rainbow thing meant that this book had to be yellow, which was perfect. Yellow is for bright sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day. Yellow is for the first flowers poking through the winter snow. My book was bright yellow for a word that means

the belief that the ills of the past are not an inevitable part of the future, and the knowledge that life can be better, and will be better, if we do our best to make it so.

We do need a word for that.

 

(For more thought on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?, A better word than joy? and A better word than courage?)

 

Missing the Eclipse: There is Always Another?

I’ve wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun for as long as I can remember. I was a child who was fascinated by astronomy. By sixth grade I’d read every book that Jefferson West Elementary School had on the subject and I’d moved on to the Hays public library and was making pretty good progress there.

But it takes money, often a lot of money, to get the the remote locations in which that thin strip of totality seems to always lie. So, imagine my excitement when I read last February that a swatch of total eclipse was going to reach from Oregon to my home state of North Carolina.

Then, imagine my reaction when I realized that I would not be here for the big event. Days earlier I had booked non-refundable airline tickets for four to Kenya for the safari trip of a lifetime. No, the eclipse would not be visible in Kenya. No, the tickets could not be changed. Maybe I should have checked, but seriously, who looks at a schedule of eclipses before they plan a trip?

I cut my losses, focused on the excitement of my upcoming journey, and tried to ignore the ever-increasing hype about the eclipse as mid-August approached.

I had a great time in Kenya. And, the good old reliable sun provided me with a lot of beautiful photos, so I didn’t feel completely cheated out of celestial beauty.

Meanwhile, some of those closest to me headed over to nearby Charleston SC for nature’s big show. Our home near Asheville wasn’t in the path of totality. But, we have kin in Charleston, and it seemed like  a terrific place to view an eclipse: all that wide expanse of ocean, all those great restaurants and things to do, and a relative’s condo that was available for free.

Only the total eclipse didn’t happen quite as expected. Yes, the moon passed in front of the sun for a couple of minutes, but it never got dark, like in the NASA photo shown at the top of this post. It was more dusky, like part way through a sunset. According to some theories, light from outside the totality band was reflected off of the ocean, preventing complete darkness. Whatever the cause, an iPhone captured totality like this. It was a cool experience, according to those who were there, but not quite the extreme event they were lead to expect.

I’m in Charleston today, thinking about the eclipse that I missed. That was about 28 days ago and we are back to the new moon. This time, the moon won’t pass directly in front of the sun, at least from where I am sitting. But it will from somewhere, even if that somewhere is out in space.

Sooner or later, I hope to find a way to put myself directly in that shadow. Will the experience live up to all of my expectations? Maybe. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, here is how the sun, and that invisible new moon, are looking today in the Charleston area, just one full cycle of the moon later.

Not too shabby. If this is the best solar event I get to see for awhile, I’m not going to feel so bad about it.