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.

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.

Stop

Surpemes Like the other members of the Zeitman family, Alex finds that music helps him do the extraordinary things of which he is capable. To me, this is merely interjecting a bit of realism into the plot. Music helps me stay awake late at night when I am driving. Music helps me get out of bed and face a tough day, thanks to the fact that I have an alarm tied to an mp3 player with a special selection of wake-up songs. I play one kind of music when I am cooking a big meal or doing a chore that takes extra energy, and other types when I am stressed and need to relax. I think most people use music, the right kind of music for them, to bring out their strengths and to help them do what needs to be done. Because Alex can slow time down, it is natural that he gravitates to songs that tie into this talent. Enjoy this short excerpt from z2, and the video below.

Alex stood in the parking lot with his hands full of books and supplies to bring into his classroom. School was out for the day and it was better to carry all this stuff back in now rather than deal with it in the morning when he would inevitably be running late. The heat sizzled off of the asphalt and the glare of the late afternoon sun on the windshields was blinding. He gave the car door a hard push with his knee and then he remembered. His keys were on the car seat. The locks were on. Damn.

As Diana Ross and the Supremes started singing “Stop! In the Name of Love” in his head, Alex dropped the books and thrust his hands into the narrowing opening, trying to get the gradually slowing car door to hit his arms or at least his wrists. He did not want to break a finger. The door didn’t stop, but the speed of the door became slower and slower as he thrust forward until finally it barreled into his left lower arm and he felt the pain. Ouch, that was going to cause some bruising, he thought with a wince.

He stood for a few seconds in the blinding bright shimmer of sunlight on metal and glass, and let his heart slow down and the world around him speed back up. As he bent down to pick up the books he had dropped he thought, I have got to learn more about what the hell is going on with me.

Watch the Supremes perform their hit song live on Shindig in 1965.

You might also want to check out this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Tribute to the Supremes, and consider purchasing this song from Amazon.com.

This year October 10th lasted almost all month

I’ve taken a lot of classes in creative writing, but only one in writing poetry. The class gave me two things. (1) It firmly established that I am not a poet.  (2) It gave me Oct. 10.

Rather, it gave me a poem called “Oct. 10” about the bright blue sky of autumn and the importance of wrapping the memory of that sky close around you to bring comfort on a white winter day.  For whatever reason, that phrase stuck with me and from it I created my own personal holiday.  Every year, on or around Oct 10, wherever I have lived and whatever I have been doing, there has always been one of those gorgeous cool clear autumn days. I’d call in sick. I’d ignore household chores. It was my own personal day off, a celebration of all things beautiful, and every year I found a way to take at least part of the day and make it mine.

autumn crop for blogUntil this year. I’ve moved to a location with colder weather and far more trees. October started out cool and rainy and I was worried that my special holiday might not even happen here. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once the rain passed, the daytime sky settled in to bright blue while the leaves around me danced from golden to orange to burgundy, and I went into holiday mode. And couldn’t come out of it.  I mean, I knew it had been over two weeks since I started celebrating, but it still felt like Oct 10 and so I spent day after day on my front porch staring at a deep blue sky. I intended to be writing, I really did. I had plenty else that needed to be done. But damn, it was Oct 10 and I needed to enjoy every bit of it.

The rain and cold finally came back of course, and today I made a nice detailed list of everything I have got to get done.  It felt good to get organized again; I’m one of those people who likes that feeling. It’s November, and time to move on. But what a great Oct. 10! I hope it lasts as long next year.

(If you like the idea of declaring a personal holiday, check out my post for 2012, when Oct 10 didn’t come until Oct. 28.)

Slowing Down Time

matrixIf you type “slowing down” into Google, one of the first alternatives it will offer you is a search of “slowing down time”. It is obviously a popular topic, and I knew when I created my hero Alex that his ability was hardly unique. Normal humans often report time moving slower during an emergency, although Jeff Wise has a wonderful blog post explaining how researchers have shown this is just an illusion. Fictitious super humans frequently slow down time to stop crime or protect themselves, none better photographed than Neo in the original Matrix movie.

But Alex is just a normal guy, in what I want my readers to believe is the real world. What’s more, time doesn’t merely slow down for him in an emergency, it eventually moves differently for him when he wills it to do so. During much of z2, Alex learns to recognize and to finally use this gift. Along the way, he gives the very nature of time, and the possibility of time travel, some serious consideration.

slowing-time-clockAs I created Alex, I wanted him to discover another who shared a variation of his talent so that at the very end of the book they could work together. Xuha, a short-in-stature student of Maya descent, surprises Alex with his fighting abilities and confides his own time manipulation talents. The two of them consider whether great fighters, athletes, and musicians might not all have a touch of these same abilities.

Here is an excerpt from z2, telling of the first time that Alex uses his ability off of a basketball court.

And then there she was. Alert, wide brown eyes and dark reddish-brown hair almost the color of the logs popped up about eighty yards away, just downstream of the logjam that Ken had called a “strainer.” All three of them shouted to her before the current sucked her back under. Alex felt his own breathing return, just knowing that she was alive. Seconds later she popped up again, downstream of a second clump of branches, but this time she was coughing out water hard. Alex looked closer. Good Lord. She didn’t have her life jacket on.

Ken seemed not to have noticed that fact, as he started moving, relieved, along the shore hoping to intercept Lola somewhere downstream. She was in the middle of the river now, moving fast, and she appeared to be coughing too hard to even try to make her way to shore. Oh hell, Alex thought, I know that she can barely swim. He looked around for anything he could grab quickly.

“Alex, get back here!” Sara yelled it as she saw Alex start to wade out into the fast cold water, a canoe paddle in his hand.

“Alex, no!” Ken joined in as well from his position downstream.

But all Alex could think of was that is he was going to have to pay for his decisions, he was damn well going to make sure that he did everything he could to make this come out right.

Then he noticed how wide the river really was. How far to the center Lola was and how fast she was moving. How slow his own progress in the deep cold water was going to be. And he realized that he’d never make it to her in time. She’d flail on past, still dozens of feet away from him, and none of them would have any way of reaching her before cold and fatigue completely overtook her.

And then it happened. The roar of the water and the sound of Ken and Sara’s shouts faded into a muffled background, and all Alex heard was the sound of his own heart pounding. The beat of it remained steady and firm as the water began to move more slowly. As did Lola. Alex had the odd sensation of walking out onto a basketball court, willing his body to move to the rhythm of the game, of this game. His feet felt light but firm as they moved with power along the rocky riverbed. His hands were strong and capable as they lifted the paddle out towards Lola. He was moving at a normal pace to him, but he was already in chest-deep, and only feet from her now. She looked puzzled but grateful, and Alex heard his own voice boom slowly “Lola! Grab the paddle!”

He thrust it into her hands, and as the current slowly twisted her body downstream, her fingers just barely curled around the white blade. Alex pushed the paddle more firmly into her hands. Her grip tightened as she realized that this ordeal could actually be over. Then Alex used the paddle to pull her in closer, finally reaching out to grab her shirt and drag her in towards shore. She collapsed at the waters edge, still coughing hard and shivering uncontrollably.

Sara rushed to her, and Ken hurried back to them, as Alex himself sunk down into the pebbled sand, now shaking with cold. Slowly, Lola’s coughing picked up speed, as did Ken and Sara’s movements and speech, and then everything moved with his heartbeat again, happening at the pace it should.

“I had no idea you could move that fast,” Ken chided Alex with a relieved grin as he joined the group.

“We yelled at him not to go out into that water,” Sara was shaking her head to Lola. “But thank heavens he did, huh?”

Lola was smiling. She pulled herself upright and stumbled towards Alex to give him a long hug. “How did you ever make it out there to me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternative,” he said simply.

“That’s good,” she laughed. “I’m glad.”

As the rest of the day centered on getting off of the river and getting the Zeitmans dry and warm, and all of them back on the road headed home towards Texas, Alex kept having one thought.

I had no idea. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. But it didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that time would slow down like that for me anywhere but on a basketball court.

For two of my favorite sources of information on time dilation, see
It’s About Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity, N. David Mermin, ISBN 978-0-691-12201-4
Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, Michio Kaku, ISBN 978-0-385-52069-0

My job is to get wiser

It has been just over three months now since I became unemployed. It’s a big deal for me, even though it was my own decision, made once I decided that if I made my life much simpler, I had enough to get by.

I knew that my job provided more discretionary income than I would ever have again.  I knew that it provided a social circle of sorts, and a reason to bathe regularly. I was prepared for a lack of all those things. I felt like I’d always had it in me to a be poor unwashed hermit, so no problem there.

I didn’t realize that my job provided reference points for the passage of time, and that after so many years with a typical job, I would be disorientated without those familiar markers. My husband, who made this same plunge three years ago, saw what was coming. Of course, for the past three years he had been using my work schedule to mark his own days.

“We will still have special meals on week-ends,” he declared. “Drink a bottle of wine, grill a nice piece of fish.” I laughed at him.  “We can do that any time now.”

“Yeah, but we won’t,” he said. “You’re going to need this.” He was right.

motion 2I didn’t realize that my job provided a sense of purpose, even if that purpose was only to pay the bills. I have a higher purpose, I thought.  My real purpose is to write. I didn’t consider how writing is basically a manic-depressive activity for me, filled with bursts of creativity and action interspersed with doubt and lethargy. One’s purpose needs to be solid, a guidepost that doesn’t wax and wane to a bipolar rhythm.

So I’ve kind of informally been seeking a purpose, and oddly enough I think I’ve found one. It probably was my purpose all along, I just didn’t think of it as such.

My job is to get wiser. I actually think that is everyone’s real job, but I also think it’s not my business to tell other people what their purpose is. So  …. I’ll stick to me. I’m on a mission to become a wise woman. I’m not sure exactly what the process involves, but I’m pretty sure that it includes a lot of writing, reading, helping others, being close to nature, taking good care of my self, traveling, learning, and meditating. It might involve a lot more.  I don’t know. I’ll find out.

I figure that a would-be wise woman takes wisdom wherever she finds it. So now my life is a classroom and, as a full time student, I make little notes to myself wherever I go. People in town may think I’m a little crazy.

A wonderful local yoga studio has provided me with lots of material, not to mention a few more reference points as I try to make it to my favorite classes. “We are naturally drawn to movement,” the instructor said the other day, talking about how all the flashing blinking lights in our lives hold us mesmerized. “But remember that there is no movement without stillness.”

motionIt sounded very Zen, but in fact the man was talking good solid physics. There is no motion if everything is in motion together. You do know that the earth is zipping around the sun at nearly 70,000 miles an hours, don’t you? You don’t? How could you possible not notice traveling at 70,000 miles an hour? It turns out it is pretty easy when everything else moves with you. Have one thing stand still (or as good old Einstein pointed out, assume you are standing still and the other thing is moving 70,000 miles an hour in the other direction) and the motion becomes apparent.

That’s it.  You need motion. You need stillness. You need reference points. Way to go, physics! Way to go, yoga! Way to go, universe!