Still a Sunrise?

Going for a stroll in Kenya

I arrived back from Africa on Saturday, and the first thing I encountered was more people from Africa. Specifically, I had two Uber drivers. One, from Ghana, took me to where I was staying overnight en route and the second, from Sierra Leone, took me back to the airport at 6 am to catch my final flight home.
I had been visiting Kenya, which sets about 3500 miles away across a continent from both of these men’s homes, yet their faces lit up when they heard where I had been. Both had been in the US for years, trying, in their own words, to make a better life.

My travels had added a new layer of understanding to what they meant.

Sun on the horizon in Kenya

I had spent some time talking to my Kenyan guide, learning about his life and his hopes for his four-year-old daughter as she grows. He is determined to see her become well educated, even though such an opportunity was beyond his reach.

What would you have studied?
“I wanted to become a lawyer,” he laughed. “Obviously that was impossible in my situation.”
As we traveled, I couldn’t help but notice the way he negotiated his way through the problems we encountered. Your instincts were good, I thought. You’d have made a fine lawyer. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
“What do you hope your daughter studies?” I asked.
The question seemed to make him sad.

The U.S. presence in Kenya

“She won’t have so many options to choose from,” he told me. He’d been careful to keep most of his opinions to himself as we traveled, and this is probably a wise thing for any travel guide, anywhere, to do. But for just a moment he spoke from his heart.

“It doesn’t bother me that you don’t appreciate all the opportunities that you have in your country. What bothers me is that you don’t even recognize that you have them.”

He’s right, I thought. We don’t recognize it. Most of us have done little to nothing to create those opportunities and yet we not only see them as normal, we act as though they are our birthright.
Perspective is one of the many and better benefits of travel.
This week, it introduced to me three men. One is working hard to provide his daughter a better life. Two have left their families, friends and cultures behind to seek better lives for themselves.

George Washington’s chair

Stop me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t this sort of hard work and goals that we are so proud of in the United States; the very thing we believe built this nation?

I ask because while I was doing all this listening and thinking, white supremacist groups in my country were carrying on to a frightening degree. Others are still clamoring to cut immigration way back to keep all these “undesirables” from coming in.

I once heard a story that George Washington had a chair decorated with a sun along the horizon and that Benjamin Franklin said “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.

Sunrise at Dulles

I thought of that story as the cab driver from Sierra Leone dropped me off at the airport and I was treated to the sight of the sun rising over Washington D.C.

Hey America, do  you think that it is still a rising sun on that chair? I think it can be, but only if we are smart enough to recognize the things we take for granted and strong enough to refuse to let fear and bigotry be our guide.

Point of View

I violate one of the basic rules of storytelling. I do it often, I do it on purpose, and I like doing it.

The rule is to pick a point of view and stick to it, at least for a full chapter. But because the stories I tell myself are never told from a single point of view for very long, how could the stories I tell others ever be? One of my greatest fascinations with a tale is how differently the events appear to various characters. So if you read something I write, be prepared to hear the plot unfold through several sets of eyes.

My latest book is providing me with new challenges in this regard. As the sixth and last book in my 46. Ascending collection, it features a dozen characters with five unusual powers as they learn to work together. I’m having fun changing the point of view, but am also striving to find new ways to do it so that it doesn’t leave my readers’ heads spinning.

My character Alex, who can slow down or speed up time, reacts to save his wife Lola while they are aboard a cruise ship in a storm at sea. I tried this technique for showing how they both experience what happens.

About twelve minutes later, or so it seemed to her, a series of sharp knocks on the cabin door woke all three of them. A pleasant young man brought in a tray of dry snacks, cartons of water, more motion sickness treatments, and extra pillows, cushions and even bungee cords for securing people and things.

“We are in a bit of a lull now,” he cheerfully informed them “and the rain has stopped. The captain says that if you want a spot of air on deck at all today, now would be the time to take it.”

“I’ll pass,” Maurice muttered without moving. “But I will take a look at your pill selection.”

“I could really use the fresh air,” Lola said. She looked at Alex hopefully. He knew how hard it was for her to stay in the enclosed cabin.

“Let’s both go get a breath of it,” he agreed.

After that, their recollections would always be different.

She would remembered wanting to leave the cabin quickly before he changed his mind.

He would remembered wondering why she didn’t stop to put on something besides those stupid cheap slippers she’d bought in Ushuaia.

She would remember hurrying down the hall because she wanted to catch the heavy metal door before it latched completely behind a couple coming back inside.

He would remember being annoyed because he had to speed up to join her as he felt a large gust of wind blow through the open door.

She would remember bounding outside, then looking up and being overwhelmed at the sight of the unusually large wave on the other ship of the ship. She would recall the roar of it, the froth of it, the fear of it as she started to slide backwards with the tilt of the deck.

He would never even see the wave. As he reached the door, he would be looking down, watching her momentum carry her into a slide as she slipped along an improbably tilted deck towards a rail that was clearly inadequate, coming only as high as her thighs for christsakes but sticking out way over the ocean, and what the hell kind of guard rail was that?

She wouldn’t even remember a guard rail, just a second of terror, a realization that she was going over board.

He would see her slow down, way down, almost stopping as she hung there.

She would remember Alex grabbing her arm so fast she thought he’d dislocated her shoulder, then both of them slamming onto the deck and sliding backwards towards the door, with Alex grabbing on to something as the boat made a high-angle lurch the other way and then a few more frightening tilts back and forth.

He would remember time speeding back up as she cried and shivered with the cold and the shock, and thinking that he had almost lost her again.

She would only remember thanking him and telling him that she loved him.

He would remember silently holding her to warm her, and hoping she understood how much he loved her too.

(For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)

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.

Nature calls it even

wavesI’ve been thinking recently about the concept of a tie, or draw in a contest. (See my post about ties on my x0 blog here.) I’m on vacation, relaxing. I am also realizing that I let myself relax all too seldom. There’s work, a necessary evil. Family. Relationships. Joyful but not effortless. Writing. Blogging. Both my passions but not effortless either. And then there’s that damn kitchen counter that always needs a wipe down.

This week I am at the beach, on a screen porch that overlooks the ocean, and captures the sea breeze and the sounds of waves. I think maybe I should get off the porch and do something and then I think, why? This is my vacation.  So I sit here and ponder the tides. It is low tide now, so the sea has receded and paused. It rests in equilibrium, a perfect tie between the pull of water as it follows the tug of the moon and the sloshing back of the water as the moon looses its grip.

moonThere is a full moon tonight, another wonderful resting point of nature that will be shown in all its spectacular glory, sparkling off the waves. For two weeks the moon has waxed, growing ever larger. Tonight it will pause, caught between expansion and contraction. Tomorrow the forces of waning will begin to win, for two weeks or so at any rate.  Then a dark moonless night filled with the wonder of a million stars will accentuate another temporary draw in this battle of the waxing and the waning moon.

Although I call work a necessary evil, the truth is that my profession in geophysics is born of a deep fascination with the earth and sky and physical forces that shape the universe around us. It shows up in my novels, where I have gotten to describe earthquakes, tsunami, and storms at sea.  In z2 I made the path of the sun overhead part of my plot. That is a place where nature reaches a different kind equilibrium. Here the night grows longer and darker, until the point of greatest darkness, when like the tides or the moon, things pause.  But this pause, called the solstice, is not the “tie” but merely the turning point. Days will grow longer now until for one single moment the powers of light and darkness are equal. We call it the spring equinox, and it is the moment when nature grants a tied score. Then the day grows still longer, and that brings us to now.  Late May, with the summer solstice approaching. Me sitting on a porch pondering nature and equilibrium and thinking that at the very least I ought to go inside the wipe down the kitchen counter, left in quite a mess after the lunch that faded into the nap that faded into these seaside thoughts.

I get as far as opening the door into the house when I see that my son has not only wiped down the counter, he’s loaded and run the dishwasher as well. My my. All things have cycles don’t they, and it appears that we have reached some sort of equilibrium point regarding kitchen clean-up. I love it when nature allows for balance. I smile my appreciation, and head back to the hammock for a second nap.

hammock2

For a few later thoughts on the merits of a close game please visit my y1 blog here.