Smarter, kinder and living in 2017

Laughs are precious these days. I turn on the news or open my computer with a vague feeling of dread. It’s always nice to be surprised by a little humor instead, so today I’m sharing a few of my favorites from Facebook. Links to like are at the bottom of the post. Please do.

Along with my growing appreciation of anything that gives me a smile, I notice that I am also becoming bolder in expressing my opinions. This week I had my first letter to the editor published in our local newspaper. Encouraged by how easy that was, I just sent in my first ever Op-Ed piece, a guest editorial on North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill. In case you haven’t heard, you are watching NCAA championship games being played in South Carolina right now because North Carolina has a law that so blatantly discriminates against the LGBT community that even the NCAA will not hold games in our state.

These days I find myself compelled to share my true beliefs with friends, relatives and strangers once they confront me with theirs. I’ve never been one to argue politics, and I still won’t be the one to bring the subject up first. I like getting along with people. But I’m also finished pretending to be disinterested, uninformed or hard of hearing when others express opinions with which I don’t agree, or worse yet which I find abhorrent. I wish to treat people gently and to listen to them with respect, but allowing myself to thoroughly disagree has improved my state of mind almost as much as the humor.

Part of my growing politicization is that I have decided that I do not have to apologize for thinking the following:
1. Education is a wonderful thing. However you make your living, knowledge makes you a better person.
2. Open mindedness is a wonderful thing. What ever your religious beliefs, being hateful to any group does not please anyone’s God. I think every holy book on the planet is pretty clear about this.

This does not make me an elitist or a snowflake. Education makes us smarter. Open-mindedness makes us kinder.

Finally, the past few months have brought me back to reflecting on two of my favorite topics: time and change. I am astounded that a large group of Americans (larger than I thought) believed that they could live in the same town they grew up in and do just what their parents did and they were somehow guaranteed that would make them a good living. This is basically an assumption that society won’t change over time. Of course it will. Moving, learning new skills and adapting to a changing world are part of survival.

Furthermore, much of this same group seems to believe that someone promised them that their culture, ethnicity, religion or social beliefs would always reflect the majority view just because they once did. Demographics and societal norms change. It makes more sense to work to improve the world that it is, than to fight to make it the way is used to be.

Most people like their cell phones and enjoy their iPods. I suggest that they wake up to the fact that that those are not the only ways that 2017 is different from 1957 and consider embracing this new millennium. They might find that it has a lot to offer everyone.

(If you enjoyed the humor, please go to Facebook and visit and like Neil Degrasse Tyson Fans, Paid Liberal Troll, and Liberal Progressive Democrat.)

Safety in Science Fiction

Taking the time to read Charles Yu’s “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” was a special treat for me. If I let myself read science fiction at all these days, it is flash fiction; something that won’t stick in my head while I try to finish my own science fiction novel. But I was at a retreat for three days, without computer, internet or television, and it was dark before six p.m. What was I to do? So I took peak into Minor Universe 31 and became trapped for many enjoyable hours.

how-to-live-safely-coverHere’s the short review. 1) I give this book five stars. There were many things I loved about it, but the three best were its overall oddness, the way math and science were interwoven into the story, and its brilliant observations about human nature. 2) There were a couple things I didn’t like, but I acknowledge that they may say more about me than they do about the book. 3) I discovered that I can go right ahead and read a novel if it’s this unique, and it doesn’t screw with my inner voice at all. Now I just have to find more books like this.

A slightly longer version of the review would let you know that I have a huge fondness for authors who take chances. Charles Yu takes many, jumping around multiple time lines and repeating a classic scene wherein he shoots himself until the scene finally makes sense to the reader. He creates a multiverse that is almost believable, then hits you over the head with the occasional reminder that this all has to be nonsense. Risky behavior, and I applauded him as I read.

From his use of a schematic instead of a table of contents through his labeling chapters with Greek letters, he not only speaks geek, he uses it to draw you into his protagonist’s world. In spite of the lack of science involved with this book’s actual version of time travel, physics and math permeate other parts of the story, helping the reader to overlook how preposterous the basic premise is.

charlesyuhowtolivesafelyNeither the audacity of the approach nor the nod to science would have made this book brilliant, however. It took Yu’s clever yet valid observations about humans to do that. One of my favorites: “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” Wow. Or how about: “I realized a couple of years ago that not only am I not super skilled at anything, I’m not even particularly good at being myself.” Yeah. And the book is full of gems like these.

Now for what I did not like.

Because I am a writer, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a time travel story without developing a plausible method for time travel. Because I am a geek, and a geophyscist in my day job, I got quite frustrated with a time travel story that offered no such plausible method. Yu has tied his temporal device to words and tenses, keeping his readers always aware that is a story told by a storyteller. I’m not fond of books and movies that center on writers lives or on the significance of the written word as they can strike me as being full of self-importance. At its worst “How to Live Safely …” crossed that line a few times for me.

Because I am a reader, I give Yu tremendous credit for creating a main character that was sympathetic yet believable, and with whom I could identify in spite of the differing demographics of age, race and gender. Because I am a woman and a mother, I winced at the emphasis on the father-son relationship while mom was largely relegated to her desire to make her son a nice dinner. To be fair, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but given that the other female character in the book is a computer who cries too much, I felt my gender was a bit slighted. That’s me though; the story that Yu had to tell wasn’t much about mothers or women, it was about a young Asian man.

mastershift2jpgBoth the short and long reviews conclude with the fact that I am very glad I read this book. The sheer innovation in it was inspiring, and because it was so unique it didn’t screw with my inner voice at all. I wish that I knew how to read this book for the first time again, but I don’t. I’m just going to have to find more books like this. The problem is that I’m not sure if any others exist, at least not in my particular chronodiegetical schematic.

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.)

 

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.

 

 

Bring back the good old days?

I get a lot of ideas for blog posts while I’m doing yoga. Some would say it is because my brain relaxes and stops talking. Others might guess that I’m lucky enough to have uncommonly profound yoga instructors. Normally I’d go with both of the above, but not today. This post comes from my mind’s refusing to agree to do what it was told.

The pastToday, I was instructed to be totally present in the now. This is a common prompt in a yoga class, but the problem started when we were asked to reflect on what kept us from being so. “I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamored.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But another voice in my head spoke up, and it was less anxious to please.

“No,” it corrected. “For starters, you are not just replaying scenes in your head, you are spending time processing what has happened. Processing is not a bad thing. You do “after action reviews”, just like the military. You try to learn from your past mistakes, like every historian says we need to do. Replaying events in order to be wiser in the present is a valuable activity.”

Hmmmmm …. It looked like a rebellious section of my monkey mind was staging a coup. I managed to hush it for the duration of the class, but I picked up the train of thought as I drove home.

It was true. My sincere contrition for poor behavior is seldom spontaneous.  It often comes after a hard look at the past, hopefully the very recent one. My gratitude is often the fruit of this inter-cranial after action review process, as is my forgiveness, and my recognition of a job well done by myself or others. Monkey mind had a point. I would not want to live in a world where I didn’t review the past and grow. Some of my best behavior comes from that.

So what was the problem? Well, there is such a thing as an unhealthy obsession with what has occurred. Each of us has a thing or two we’ve spent far too much time reviewing. Often we are still angry with someone, or still trying to justify our own less than stellar actions. I know that I spend time there. Let’s face it. There is “learn from” and there is “fixate on” and they are two different things.

We also can hide in a glorified past, afraid of change and not wanting the future to bring that which we don’t understand. But it will, it always will bring it.

growing bolder 9I think that society has the same dilemma. Certain periods fascinate us beyond all reason. Too often we use historic events to perpetuate hatred and prejudice, not to grow and be better. And there is this insane obsession with returning our country, or our religion, or culture or world to some “good old days” of the past. Forget that those days were never as good as the hype. The real problem is that those days are gone, they are always gone. You cannot recreate them. You can make a better future and use some of the best ideas of the past to do so, but the obsession with making things just like they once were is only a way to waste your precious present.

I was sort of warming to this meld of ideas when my monkey mind, which is very good at digging up facts, reminded me of something. I suspect that every author has a scene or two in each book that they consider their favorites.  I know I do. This one from z2 takes place after Kisa discovers that Kyle is of a nationality that she has always despised. My yoga mind and monkey mind both reread it together and the good news is that they now agree. We do all need to learn from the past, and then we need to let it go.

Kyle asked more seriously. “Kisa, what do you think is a reasonable time limit for hate?”

“I don’t believe in hate.”

“No one does, but we all do. If someone kills my kin, hurts my friends, ruins my life, I may be able to forgive and move on. But if a large group of people does such a thing? Then I almost certainly don’t. I call my hatred lots of things. Justified anger. Revenge. Forcing this group to behave better. Even self-defense. But for how long do I get to punish all the people associated with or descended from those who caused the harm?”

“In parts of the world feuds are centuries old,” she remarked, “with a staggering list of injustice and cruelty on both sides. Once it gets to that point, forgiveness or even just acceptance between two groups seems impossible.”

“That’s what I mean. And each fresh insult keeps the fire going. To stop hating appears to dishonor the sacrifices made by those who came before. Who wants to let their ancestors down?”

“So we keep it going and let our children down instead, as we let the circle grow ever wider,” Kisa said. “Immediate blood relatives of the perpetrators? Those who look like them? Pray like them? Dress like them? Anyone who shares a city, or a nation, or a continent with them?”

“Exactly. In other words, how would you like to let one Spaniard who thinks that the burning of Tayasal was an abomination buy you dinner and start over?”

“I’d love that.” She thought a second. “Do you know who said ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind’?”

Kyle shook his head. “Gandhi? John Lennon?”

Kisa laughed. “Good guesses. Albert Einstein.” Her anger and even embarrassment at not recognizing Kyle’s heritage was gone. “I think that it’s a good time for you and me to grow up.”

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about my never ending focus on performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. For thoughts about focusing on the future, see Prepare for the Worst? on my d4 blog. And find out what my yoga instructor thought the problem was at Are you performing, or performing? on my y1 blog.)

 

 

 

Best movies about time, at least in this space/time continuum

travel-in-time-to-1969-space-time-continuum-andee-designI am part of the movie-viewing public that never tires of a well done flick that examines time. But, as one might guess from the plot of z2, my favorites involve a clever manipulation of time, or a riff on the mysteries of time, rather than straight time travel stories.

There are several reasons that simple time travel stories don’t generally impress me.

yankeeFirst, when they only involve going into the past, they are too often no more than an excuse to do a “fish out of water” piece on a present day hero in an historical setting of the writer’s choosing. I think that Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (written all the way back in 1889) pretty much covered this, and the subsequent 1949 movie starring Bing Crosby brought it to the screen well. If you want to write about (or watch) contemporary people experiencing early Rome or the Ming dynasty, that’s fine, you are absolutely entitled to your pleasures.  I just consider such stories to be more historical fiction than science fiction, and I’m not all that fond of historical fiction.

eloiConversely, if the time travel is only to the future, the DeLorean (or whatever the time machine is called) is only a vehicle to get present day people into the author’s wonderful, or awful, vision of tomorrow.  It is science fiction, but like H.G. Well’s tale of the poor Eloi, the time travel aspect is far less important than the future that is created. I may or may not like the story, depending on what I think of the tomorrow that is being described. For example, although I admire H.G. Wells and his groundbreaking ideas for 1895, I personally wasn’t all that crazy about the flesh eating Morlocks.

spock-prime1The remaining option, obviously, is to craft a story in which folks shuttle back and forth through time. I believe that this kind of fiction is so hard to do well. It is easy for a writer to fall into the silly and overused “the whole universe is going to unravel because I sneezed” situation, as in my least favorite time travel series ever, “Back to the Future.” Some plots avoid this better than others. I thought that the whole Spock Prime thing in the 2013 movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” was a wonderful example of how to avoid this scenario without a complicated explanation. Well done.

So what time related movies do intrigue this humble author? Well, I recently found this wonderful post called 8 great movies that manipulate time written by Jay A. Fernandez back in June 5, 2014 on a blog called “Signature” and I invite you to check it out for yourself.

Four of the eight are some of my favorite movies ever, based on their wonderful looks at the slippery and fascinating phenomenon of time. In order of increasing preference:

4. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) is based on a 1922 story by F.Scott Fitzgerald. The idea of a baby born as an old man who gets younger as he ages is intriguing, even though the love story which forms most of the plot was too schmaltzy for my tastes. (The truth is that I like romance novels even less than I like historical fiction.) A more modern take on this same idea isTime's Arrow Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. This is a far darker story based on the idea of time running in the other direction, in a scenario in which the opposite of reality makes more sense than the reality itself.

3. “Memento”(2000) tells the tale of a man who completely lacks short term memory, meaning that there is no recent past for him. The story picks at that disturbing connection between human consciousness and the laws of physics. What is time without an observer?

2. “Run, Lola, Run” (1998) shows how three split second variations at the start of a story yield three vastly different outcomes, not only for Lola, but for everyone whose life she touches on her maniac mission to save her boyfriend. 

1. “Groundhog Day” (1993) is the infamous story of a man forced to live the same day repeatedly. Yes, it is officially my favorite movie, because of its cosmic implication that we all get each of life’s lessons over and over until we finally wise up and learn what we need.

warped-clockThe list includes three other movies I have always meant to see (“Twelve Monkeys”, “Inception”and “Irreversible”) and one other I somehow missed hearing about but have now added to my list to check out (“Primer.”) It also gives an honorable mention to another favorite of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which makes up for the honorable mention it gives to Back to the Future. Clearly intelligent movies about the nature of time are plentiful, and hopefully the recent interest in science fiction will spur on even more.

 

More songs about this than anything, except of course for love

If you search for song titles containing a particular noun, it should come as no surprise that the most popular word is “love”. But what is the second most popular? My empirical evidence suggests that it is “time.” That confounding concept that gives and takes away from us in equal measure is the source of no end of angst, and, therefore, of music. I knew that my book z2, which is about time in so many ways, needed a song called “Time.”

light clockBut which one? I’d already used a favorite of mine, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” in x0. Pink Floyd has a great song called “Time” but it’s a little serious for Alex’s tastes. A rapper named Feat Wap has one too, but again it’s not really Alex’s style. Ditto for Sarah McLachlan’s lovely song “Time” and Mikky Ekko’s of the same name. All beautiful and wonderful and there are quite a few more, but Alex likes music that makes his feet tap. Then I remembered the song by Hootie and the Blowfish and it was perfect.

As the story fell into place, the memory of the Hootie and the Blowfish song turned out to be what set in motion Alex’s year long project to have his advanced physics class try to build a time machine.  See the short excerpt below.

Alex wondered how much of that was his own fault. Maybe he had been doing the same thing for too long. Was it getting stale? In truth, the student who showed up for a high school physics class was seldom enthused. But maybe he needed to be working harder these days to capitalize on what little enthusiasm existed.

On the other hand, in spite of some of the behavior problems in his regular physics classes, the students this past year had tended to be more engaged than usual. Even his most potentially unruly class, third period with the three T-heads, as they now called themselves, rose to the standard of intelligent discussion on occasion. Alex wondered how many of his eighty or so first-year physics students would go on to take the more advanced class next year.

This bunch would be a fine group for trying something a little new, something designed to grab the interest of an eighteen year old. What would he have cared about at eighteen? Besides sports and girls?

Alex started toying with ideas, and found himself humming a familiar tune. What was that song? He struggled for a few minutes trying to place the melody. That’s right, he thought. The song was called “Time”.

Because of family, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Charleston SC, and am in fact here as I write this.  So it made me smile to find this version of Hootie and the Blowfish performing their 1995 hit “Time” live in Charleston S.C. in 2006. Enjoy!

Learn more at hootie.com.