The Magic of the Solstice

It’s after 9 AM and I can still see the pinks and corals of sunrise outside the window of my North Carolina home. I’m not much of a morning person, so if I see the colors of the dawn it is not by choice, except maybe in late December. That is when the physics of living on a tilted planet combines with the sheer wonder of the heavens to create the mid-morning magic of the winter solstice.

sunsetI’m told by friends who are morning people that sunrises have been happening a little later each day for awhile now, pretty much since last June in fact, and they’ve been movingly steadily southward as well. Sunsets, which I love to observe with a glass of wine in hand, have been happening earlier and moving southward too. Best of all, they both occur more slowly as the sun appears to glide to the earth at ever more of an angle, giving us dusks and dawns that go on and on.

The noon sun sits lower in the southern sky this time of year too. Shorter days combine with the increased atmosphere that the sun’s rays have to travel through to get to us to yield the cold temperatures and snow we call winter.

You already know that the further north you are the more extreme this is. In Reykjavik the winter solstice sun will rise about 11:30 in the morning and set about 3:30 in the afternoon, giving those in Iceland a four hour day. Paris will have over eight hours of solstice daylight, while the day in Mexico City will last eleven hours.

Of course, the southern hemisphere is enjoying the long days of summer right now. Morning people in Cape Town will get to watch a 5:30 AM sunrise on our winter solstice, and South Africans who like to watch the sunset with a glass of wine, like I do, will be doing so at 8 PM.

What about folks who live above the arctic circle? The sun set on the ten thousand or so residents of Hammerfest Norway at about noon on November 21, and it will rise again on January 21, creeping barely above the horizon for about an hour of noontime sunrise that will turn into straight into a sunset, with the light of the dusk lingering long after the sun is gone. Needless to say, the event will be greeted with celebrations.

greenlandQaanaaq Greenland has one of the longest polar nights of any town, with sunset occurring in late October and the sun first breaking back above the horizon in mid- February. The seven hundred or so residents of Qaanaaq use dogsleds to get around during the long winter night, and celebrate the return of the sun with family gatherings, songs, coffee and cakes.

What about folks who live almost on the equator? Their days do vary slightly, but no one there probably notices. The day in Quito is pretty much twelve hours long all year, give or take a few minutes, and because of the relatively high angle of the sun, the city has some of the fastest sunrises and sunsets on the planet.

You probably can tell that I’m fascinated by the seasons, just as I’m fascinated by pretty much everything else about our amazing planet. If you find such things interesting, check out a wonderful site called Time and Date where you can get a wide variety of information about observing the heavens from various places here on earth. I used the website as I wrote d4, researching the movement of the sun in both Greenland and Iceland as it affected my characters and my story.

Those of you who are sticklers for details might have noticed that the earliest sunset and latest sunrises don’t happen exactly on the solstices. The best explanation I’ve seen for this (and for much else involving the sun’s behavior) can be found in an article in The Telegraph from the UK entitled Winter solstice 2015: Everything you need to know about the shortest day of the year.

solsticeAlthough the winter and summer solstices are physical events dictated by the fact that our planet is tilted about twenty-three degrees off of the plane in which it rotates around the sun, I find both a mathematical beauty and a sense of wonder in the day. It is a point of pause, a time when motion in one direction halts, we breath, and then motion in another direction begins. It is the time when darkness has its longest reach, only to begin its retreat in a dance step that will be echoed by the light six months later.

Many religions celebrate the winter solstice outright; most others have placed a holiday involving lights somewhere around the darkest day of the year. I believe that we humans feel the significance of the day somewhere deep within, and we yearn to acknowledge it.

Finally, one might easily consider the first day the sunlight grows to be the true start of a new year. For even though the coldest temperatures and worst winter storms are yet to come, the cause for the coming spring and summer has begun.

That’s Why You Make the Trip

img_3402Cinnamon on oranges and cumin on boiled eggs. The inside of a walled city so confusing that it has spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to directing lost tourists. Surfer towns painted in hippie colors and seaside resorts caught in a 50’s time warp as they offer hospitality to a smattering of elderly Europeans.

None of this is what I expected when I came to Morocco.

This is a blog about predicting the future, and over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the unexpected. Three of us have just spent some time in Marrakech, and now as we leisurely make our way to Casablanca we have three nights to spend on the road. One of us wants to simply drive and stop when we feel like it, with no research ahead of time and no plans. Us other two have agreed. For me, planner that I am, this will be a true exercise in embracing the unexpected.

img_3345The first night we land in Agadir, the vacation spot for aging Anglos. Our adventurous non-planner has become ill, so he rests while two of us walk along a boardwalk under the watchful eye of an old but festively lit Ferris Wheel. We order pizza from a Lebanese restaurant on the beach. My vegetarian version is covered in eggplant and is some of the best pizza I have ever had.  Okay, I didn’t see that coming from Morocco. Back at the hotel, I go searching for something to calm the stomach of my sick friend. The kitchen staff barely understands me, but they insist I take plain rice and “water with gas” for him at no charge. They also insist that it will help, and it does.

The next day we move north along the coast, sticking to the small roads that keep us in view of the sea. The surfer town where we stop for lunch has people wearing clothes that fully expose their limbs. Something deep within me wants to stay longer in this part of Morocco, and live on the beach in a tent while I write deep brooding novels that I’m already sure will far exceed anything I’ve written yet. Okay, maybe someday I’ll come back and do that.

img_3371We’ve been advised to be off of the roads by nightfall, but as sunset approaches we are nowhere near a sizable enough town to have obvious lodging for strangers. Luckily one of us speaks some French, the second language of Morocco, and he is able to talk to a young man in the street who sends us to the town’s only open restaurant which also serves as an auberge. I didn’t know what an auberge was, but it turns out that this fairly common form of lodging is somewhere between a B&B and a hostel.

The young Moroccan working at the auberge is quick to offer us local beers. Fresh fish is a possibility for dinner, but when he has trouble communicating the kinds of fish that are available he simply brings me a bucket of everything that has been caught that day and asks me to pick one. Turns out I don’t know a sea bass from a grouper, so I point and hope for the best. We dine gazing at miles of desolate beautiful coastline with a sunset behind the mixture of cliffs and beaches that could fill dozens of different postcards and no two would look alike. My travel companions are generous and let me end up with the room that literally hangs out over the ocean, and I have one of my most memorable nights ever as I sleep to the sound of the sea.

img_3453Our last day takes us north into the greener, more populated and more industrial part of the coast. This time we turn to Lonely Planet for lodging ideas, and at sunset we find ourselves in a traditional Riad inside the town’s walled city but overlooking the lovely Oum Er-Rbia river (which translates as‎ “the mother of springtime”). I get the small bedroom with my own flower-covered terrace and consider what this sort of privacy and beauty would cost me for one night in the United States. I don’t think I could afford it.

I don’t often eat meat, especially when traveling, but for my last night in Morocco I opt for the adventure of a beef tagine, where the meat is steamed in a special clay pot to make it particularly tender. I’m hoping for couscous and vegetables with it and my French speaking fellow traveler tries to find out what else my tagine includes. He finally gives up. “I don’t know what they’re saying. It keeps sounding like prunes and that can’t be right.”

But it is.  I get the most tender beef brisket imaginable served with a mess of very tender stewed prunes on top. It’s delicious. Who would have guessed?

img_3431The next morning I get a final surprise as we try to do a little last minute shopping. We didn’t consider that the market in this town would not be like the markets of Marrakech but rather be a place where men and women buy small treats and cheap plastic items much like they would on a Saturday morning back home at Wal-Mart. Yes, there are more motor bikes than cars, more women wearing scarves loosely over their heads than not, and there is more fresh-picked produce and whole carcasses of animals than I am used to seeing ay my local supersaver, but otherwise this could be the small city I live near now or the Kansas town where I grew up.

Why in the world would you want to go to Morocco? I did get asked that question, and I understood it because I had heard about the pushy sales techniques in the markets and the difficulties for a female traveler in a Muslim country.

img_3363But I went to taste the fig jam and the mint tea. I went to discover the things I didn’t know, like how you can see a dozen or more goats in a tree, chomping on the argan fruits.  I went to see the amazing graffiti painted on the crumbling ruins along the coast, even if I didn’t know that was why I was going.

I went because I didn’t know what I would find.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI see ghosts, It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

Is it over yet?

I admit it. At least once a day now I type “election news” into my search engine and hold my breath. I can’t help myself; it’s a little like not averting my eyes from a traffic accident as I pass by. Now what, I mutter as I clench my muscles while the headlines roll in.

stressedImagine my stressed-out surprise today when the second news item was about how much stress this election is causing us all. Yes, according to ABC News nearly half ( 46 percent) of likely voters “describe the election as a source of stress in their lives, including roughly equal numbers of Clinton and Trump supporters. Nearly a quarter, again among both candidates’ camps, say the stress is serious.”

Well, it looks like we finally all have one thing in common and you’ve got to love what it is. We all can’t wait for this thing to end.

Because I can’t do anything to make November 8 come any faster, I’m thinking about what I can do to try to make November 9 better. The best thing I can think of is to can say this.

Please vote.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe, no matter how much you do or don’t like the choices in front of you, we are all going to feel better on November 9 if this election has the greatest percentage of registered voter turn-out ever. We’ve all heard all sides, more times than we wish, but if many of us hide under the couch that day then we will all have to wonder if the outcome reflects the difficult choice that the majority of our people would have made if forced to choose.

Yes, many of us aren’t going to be completely happy about everything. That doesn’t mean we should not weigh in on the real choices before us. And yes, roughly half of us are going to have to work hard to understand what in the world the other half was thinking. I remain hopeful that everyone, myself included, is capable of making that important effort and moving forward.

Florence and the MachineWhile dealing with my own stress, I’m also in the process of looking at the last song referred to in each of my books. This sort of thing keeps me entertained. Because d4 is in part a book about working for the greater good, and finding the balance between that and ones own desires, my hero Ariel goes through much as she struggles to do what is right. As it all comes together in the end, I have her listening to one of my favorite songs, Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over”.

But because everything takes me back to politics these days, playing the video that I link to in the electronic version of the book makes me think hard about this particular election. If you haven’t heard the song in awhile, check out this from the 2009 British musical event called “T4 on the Beach. ” It does a wonderful job of showcasing lead singer Florence Welch, a nice job of capturing the crowd and even a decent job a making you feel like you are on the beach outside of Somerset, England. And in spite of all of its Brexit issues, right now England seems like a relatively peaceful place to be.

Because “Dog Days are Over” makes my personal list of top ten favorite songs ever, I smiled the entire time I wrote the scene of Ariel’s rescue and the comfort provided to her by this music. Enjoy a short except below, and then, don’t forget to vote. The dog days will be over soon.

(From Chapter 28) Ariel thought that the beautiful small Icelandic town of Seyðisfjörður would now always be one of her favorite places on Earth. As Toby’s rented speedboat made its way to the barren, snow covered docks in the deepening afternoon twilight, the many wooden buildings stood out in the remaining light, beaconing with the offer of comfort.

It had been difficult to hear each other as Toby used the expertise he had gained from years at sea to speed them safely back to Iceland, so talk on the trip back to shore had been minimal. Rather, Mikkel had gently placed earbuds in her cold ears, and then put his own dry, warm hat over her head while he played a song for her. It was Florence and the Machine singing their anthem of happiness “Dog Days are Over.” The message that her ordeal had finally ended sunk in as she enjoyed the music. Fatigue and emotion took over, and she let herself cry in relief.

Rooms were available at the small hotel in town. Better yet, there was a liquor store, and—bless these fine people—it was open too. The thoroughly chilled, damp foursome received food and care, and warm, dry clothes all around. Thankfully, they were asked remarkably few questions about why they had needed to rent a boat this time of year in the first place, or why two people had left the harbor in the morning and four people had returned before nightfall.

 (For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be Alright,  Our brand is crisis?, and We need to talk about this, just maybe not so much)

And That’s Why They Play the Game

red-soxWe are traveling during the final games of the regular baseball season, and it’s causing my husband a great deal of hardship. His beloved Red Sox have been on fire, winning eleven games in a row, and he has had to content himself with replays seen on my computer and games viewed on a small screen in the middle of the night. Worse yet, no one here in Europe cares.

So it has fallen to me, as a good travel companion, to listen each morning to the endless remaining permutations of possibilities for Red Sox success. Over one breakfast, Boston had at least secured a wildcard slot. By another, they had to lose every single remaining game to not win their division. Various future scenarios offer home field advantages, and each loss by other successful teams in the division changes the formula. The configuration even left him temporarily rooting for the hated Yankees this weekend as they played a team close on Boston’s heels.

I don’t really care about baseball, but I do care about him, so I try to pay attention while he speaks. Still, my mind wanders.

riverWe’ve been on the road nearly two weeks now and in a macro sense the vacation has gone as planned.  You know, we’ve shown up where we were supposed to be, when we were supposed to be there. No glitches. But that’s sort of like the Red Sox showing up to play their games, isn’t it? Yes, being there is essential, but it is the other stuff that makes it interesting.

Who could have predicted that the Douro Valley would be such a frustrating place to drive that we would be content to make several dinners out of our breakfast leftovers rather than brave the roads? Who could have guessed that a full moon rising over the Portuguese countryside would inspire us so much with its beauty?

One might have guessed that the GPS would get us into trouble, but who would have thought we’d manage to high center our rental car so thoroughly on a tiny mountain road that it would have to picked up by hand and moved? I certainly didn’t see that one coming.

p-seaNor did I imagine the twenty or so whales we got to watch playing in the late afternoon sunlight of a boat tour, or the wonderful custard-filled tarts that are everywhere. I didn’t know that hot coffee in a big cup would be quite that impossible to find or that a single difficult-to-use espresso machine could frustrate so many half-awake people at once. Why is the air circulation here so bad? Why is the bread here so good?

The original idea for my novel d4, outlined many years ago, was that everyone at some point in the future develops prescience, and they all know what tomorrow will bring, as well as the next year and the next decade. Every human understands how they will die, and when. My overall thesis was that this society would be sad and bored.

My feelings about predestination and freewill have changed a lot in the decades since I thought this one up, and I like to think that my story telling abilities have improved also. I recognize now that such a tale would be hard to tell well and I like the array of my partially prescient characters in d4 much better. But the original story idea has me thinking.

roadIn an hour or so, Boston is going to play New York, and they might clinch the title in their division. Computer models have them likely to win by three points, and odds makers are favoring Boston heavily. You don’t have to be a sports fan to recognize that in spite of this, the Red Sox might well lose tonight. Because of that, my husband can’t wait to watch the game.

And a year from now, the things I will remember most about this trip will be all the wonderful and the difficult things that surprised me. They will be what made the trip interesting. Tonight, I’m thinking about how we don’t show up just to be somewhere. We show up to find out what happens once we arrive.

(For more vacation-inspired epiphanies see Our Brand is Crisis on my z2 blog, Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria on my x0 blog, and The Moon Rises on my c3 blog,)

 

 

 

Bulletproof

Every so often one finds a song that they really like the first time they hear it, and they still like it dozens if not hundreds of times later. I’ve got a few of those, and La Roux’s “Bulletproof” is one. So when I was assembling my largely-female-indie-artist playlist for d4, I was delighted when my music expert recommended it.

Why so much love for this song? It’s always hard to say why you like something. I’m a “words” person when it comes to music, and the lyrics are just so clever. You’ve met this guy. You know this lady. You’ve seen the dynamics. But it’s more than that. The very concept of being bulletproof appeals to something deep within. It doesn’t just mean being immune to his manipulations. It also means not being afraid of icy ski slopes or catty store clerks or traveling alone. The lyrics speak to me about being stronger; for the next presentation at work, for the next nasty book review, for the next thing that strikes fear into me whatever it is.

Yet it is more than the lyrics. The infectious beat and sing along melody is part of what make it all work for me. I found this video from a live performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 2010 and it captures every bit of that. I can hardly keep from waving my arms along with the crowd while I watch.

No, I can’t explain why I like this song so much. But I hope you enjoy it too, as well as the short excerpt from d4 showing how I mentioned the song in my book.

She decided to take Friday off work, and Eoin did not object.

“Any special plans?” he asked.

“No. Just preparing,” she said. He didn’t ask for more.

The day turned out to be one of those unusual winter days when the sky is bright blue and the temperature climbs into the sixties. Ariel smiled at her good fortune as she took the little car the company leased for her and headed north out of Dublin, planning to drive for as long as it sounded good, and then to stop and do yoga somewhere along the shore.

Ireland doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches. Much of the coast is ancient granite and volcanic remains, and much of its rocky core is old limestone, formed from the remains of tiny sea creatures that led happy lives nearly half a billion years ago, back when Ireland was located near the equator and no mammal had yet set foot on the Earth. Ariel reached for her music, and spent a minute picking her song. She decided on “Bulletproof” by La Roux; it was the perfect choice.

 She drove far enough to find a rocky bit of shore that was deserted, spread out her mat, and worked on clearing her mind. The poses came to her in a random sequence, without thought. The table. The cat. The bow. The plough.

Her goal was to calm down, and gather her strength. To make herself as bulletproof as possible.

Downward dog into a cobra into a sun salute and repeat it again. Warrior poses. Low warrior. Warrior two. Warrior three. She had skills, she had advantages, and she had back-up. She finished her routine concentrating on balance, holding a strong tree pose while she gazed at the far horizon.

She was ready. Now, she needed to go do what needed to be done.

You can also listen to or buy La Roux’s “Bulletproof” at Amazon.

Of baseball, tennis and predatory lending

I’m married to a Red Sox fan, and Friday night he was upset when his Sox won. This doesn’t happen often, so he had my attention. Apparently a fan interfered with a hit that should have allowed LA to tie the game, but a bad call on the play stood and gave Boston the victory.

“The manager knew, the team knew it, the fans knew it,” he said. “The manager should have just given LA the run. But of course he would have been fired for doing that.”

tennisThe source of much of his ire comes from the fact that he plays tennis, a “gentleman’s” game even for ladies. At all but the highest levels of play, competitors referee themselves and are expected to make calls fairly, not in their own best interest. It’s not a flawless system, but most tennis players buy into it and try to get it right.

He got me thinking. There are two ways to approach any competition. One is to take every advantage that you can. Soccer players writhing in imagined pain hoping to inflict a foul on the other team are an extreme example of this. In this world, the savvy player tries to play everyone, and get away with everything possible. The only goal is to win.

The other approach is cooperative only in the sense that one of the goals is to get the calls right. Players believe that points should be scored and games won with good rules that are fairly applied.

What do you think happens most often in a close competition between a team or person taking the first approach and one taking the second? Yes, you’re right. I believe we call it “nice guys finish last.”

This got me thinking — what is the U.S. philosophy for doing business? Well, I think there are plenty of ethical people would prefer to not only follow the letter of the law, but who would also choose to follow the spirit of the law, thereby behaving like the ladies and gentlemen on a tennis court, if you will.

loansBut, business is lot more complicated than any sport, and the rules and the playing field are always changing. Therefore, the ability to weasel around the rules is so much greater. If you put an adept weaseler in competition with a businessperson who is trying to do it right, who do think is going to drive whom out of business? More often than not? Yeah, I think so too.

A few weeks ago I read about proposed legislation to regulate what is known as predatory lending traps. These payday and auto title loans are part of a business model built on lending money to people who probably can’t afford to pay you back, thereby giving the lender the opportunity to roll over the principal into a new loan at much higher interest rates. If you’d like to know more about this practice, you can read a Southern Poverty Law Center article on how these practices wreck people’s lives. The proposed new rules would apply to products that are aimed at financially vulnerable consumers with the intent of setting them up to fail with loan payments. You can read about the new rules at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

umpireLike most people, I don’t like rules. I used to think that the less we had of them the better. However, being married to a sports fanatic has taught me a few things and one of them is that if you don’t have fair and reasonable rules to cover a situation, then the team or person with the least integrity will take advantage. When done right, rules and referees are there to make the game fair, and to see that the best player, not the most devious player, wins. Rules in the business world are there for the same purpose.

life lessons18Of course, there are those that say what goes around comes around, and that those who profit unfairly will get what they deserve eventually. I think that is probably true, but I’m not willing to see people suffer while waiting for cosmic justice.

Yes, yes, I know that sometimes it does come rather quickly. Last night Boston played LA again, for the second game in the series. They lost by a comical 21 to 2. My husband is happy because as far as he is concerned, the two teams are now even. He has high hopes that Boston will win today.

Words we need

You’ve noticed a lot of things we don’t have a word for. And, if you play word games like I do, you’ve also noticed a lot of reasonable letter combinations that don’t make a word. I mean, I get that wiqxm isn’t going to be in the dictionary. But what about lete? or dife? These would make excellent words. Why isn’t anyone working to pair these two needs together?

27-Courage-22Well, it turns out that there are people who are.  Recently I joined a group of speculative fiction writers who meet weekly to bounce ideas off of each other. I shared with them how when I wrote d4 I really needed a word to describe a memory of the future. I tried out “premory” and the more I used it the better it worked for me. In the end, premory and premories made it into my book 64 times and the story read the better for it.

Sharing with other writers in my genre has been wonderful in many ways, and one of them was discovering that night that every single one of the other writers in the group had done the same thing. Sometimes you just have to make up a word. I’m told by one of our more literary members that Shakespeare did this all the time, and we use some of his creations to this day. (Dishearten. Eventful. Eyeball. Seriously, eyeball.)

Well, new words have to be created somehow.

On the flip side, there are a ridiculous amount of words that most of us do not know. I stumbled on a wonderful blog post the other day called “Emotions We Feel but Can’t Explain” on a blog called The Girl who Feared Oblivion. It’s a fine blog and a fun article and it introduced me to JAOUSKA (a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head), RUBATOSIS (the unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat) and any writer’s favorite, FINIFUGAL (wanting to prolong the final moments of a story).

Yes, I aspire to have my readers experience finifugal as they near the end of my books, and then to have them engage in a little jaouska as the hold conversations with my characters.

And yes, I aspire to create the words lete and dife in my next novel, or at the very least ot and le. There is no questions that ot and le both need to become English words, and the sooner the better.