Replacing me with …

One of the problems with travel is that you get your world news in incomplete flashes, and what you hear isn’t always entirely accurate. The nonsense with white supremacists protesting the removal of confederate statues started a day or two before I left on a trip to the other side of the world. I remember thinking “what are those people thinking?”

Then I caught a news blurb in an airport waiting area, and something made sense. They were carrying Nazi banners and KKK flags and chanting “You will not replace me.”  Replace them? That’s what they care about? For the first time, I got what they were afraid of.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no sympathy at all for any of these groups or their causes. But, it is a fact of life that we all will die and get replaced, sooner or later. So, these people want only those who look like them, talk like them, and act like them to be their replacements? How odd. This concept had never occurred to me.

It might have to do with my life long addiction to science fiction. I’m scared of nuclear annihilation and being replaced by cockroaches. Or by human-eating alien plants. Have you ever seen “Little Shop of Horrors?” If you’re prone to paranoia about what is going to replace you, I do not recommend it.

Me, I’m afraid of having the human race replaced by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And have you seen the latest “Planet of the Apes” movie? No matter how bad the script is, you can still worry about being replaced by sentient animals. Then of course, there are always zombies and vampires, and don’t even get me started on artificial intelligence. Am I only one in the world who took the Terminator movies seriously? Or Ex Machina?

I listened to these chanters and had to laugh at myself and at them. It’s true; deep down we are all afraid of being replaced by something else. I guess I have my biases, too. But I’ll be happy to leave this world to any size, shape and color of being, genetically engineered or not, who basically has human DNA. That’s a win for me.

Then I got on an airplane and spent the next nine days in Africa.

Now Africa is full of people, many of them wonderful, beautiful and friendly, and none of them, apparently, acceptable replacements as far as the Nazi and KKK chanters back in my homeland are concerned. It made me wonder why I travel and see more people like me and they travel and see nothing but others. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe they don’t travel.

I was reminded of a famous quote by Charles Darwin which, apparently, Charles Darwin never said. In 1963, a professor paraphrased Darwin’s thoughts, and his words morphed into the following famous statement: Evolution is won not by the strongest or the smartest but by the most adaptable. 

Yes, it is important to be adaptable. I was traveling without my laptop, so I grabbed my phone and typed all these great ideas into Notes so I could easily email it to myself after I got out of the Uber and back to wifi. Then I though about how even ten years ago I would not have been doing that. But, as individuals and as a species, we must adapt. And those chanting “I will not be replaced by you” are refusing to do that.

I got back home a few days ago and had a chance to see the same footage of the angry chanters, only this time it had subtitles. Guess what? I’d misunderstood those Nazis. They were actually chanting “I will not be replaced by Jews.”

I shuddered. Somehow the specificity of the chant made it even more creepy. It also made the chanters seem even more like the dinosaurs they are. Humans stuck in old ways, fighting for their tiny ethnic clan at the expense of all others and on a sure road to their own destruction.

We live a frightening universe, folks. Don’t believe me? Go the movies. I have, and I’m really routing for the human race to make it to the year 3017. In my humble opinion it’s not looking so good. We up our chances if we allow ourselves to evolve, pulling together and fighting for our mutual human survival.

So, I want to see some marches that matter. Signs with pictures of climate change devastation and nuclear war and diseases we cannot cure. I want to hear some chanting that makes sense. All together now. “We will not be wiped out by you. We will not be wiped out by you.”

Come on humans. We can do this.

(Read more about my trip to Kenya at Smiling my way across Kenya, Still a Sunrise?Like Eating Crab and  Happy Peace Day, Chinese Person in Tent Number 59)






Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know

We are all human, analog creatures, never completely this or that, and we all slide in and out our of better selves as we make our path in this world.

Every so often I write something I like. I reread it and think I’m not sure where that came from but that’s profound. Then it passes, of course, and I go on writing normal stuff.

I had that experience when the lead sentence here showed up while I recently wrote a post about world peace for my qigong instructor and friend at Flowing Zen. None of us are completely this or that, and it’s worth remembering in our current heated political climate. It’s also worth remembering as we each reach inward, embracing ourselves for what we are.

What I am is a worrier, among other things, and I know in my heart that it is tied to my story-telling abilities. If you want a mind that makes up exciting scenarios from everyday events, well then, you get a mind that sees exploding cars, intricate scams and paranoid plots around every corner.

But there are limits to how much worrying a healthy person can do, and, to be honest, recent events in the international arena have catapulted my concerns to an unhealthy level. That’s where coping mechanisms come in.

Last November, I developed a new habit to calm my mind. I already do qigong, which is wonderful for creating calm, and I do a good bit of yoga as well. Gardening helps also. But sometimes I’m sitting at my computer and I read something disturbing and I need a quick reboot without leaving my seat. Sort of an “instant calm.”

And that’s when I play solitaire. I go to the World of Solitaire site, zip through a two minute game while breathing deeply, and somehow I’ve trained myself to emerge calmer. I don’t know why it works, but for me it does.

“Where do you the get the ideas for what happens in your stories?” It is a question I get asked. Okay, I do get many ideas from the things I worry about happening. But every once in awhile, I am able to get one from something that kept me from worrying, like in the scene below.

I got a real kick out of how my psychic hero Ariel finally sorted out a particularly complicated set of future probabilities. I hope you enjoy it too.

She wandered back into the hut she shared with Teddie and Vanida, and sat the kitchen table. She was trying to save the last bit of battery on her phone and her computer, so she aimlessly dealt out a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards that had been provided. She had played the game years ago on a computer, which made it more fun because it was easy for the player to redo moves.

But this would work to relax her. She started the game, doing the obvious first then moving on. Okay, now put the red five on the black six. Wait, which red five? They were identical choices. She went down one path. Not so good. Try the other five. Much better. She’d win going that way.

Geez, this game is like my life with premories, she thought. One choice is insignificant and another makes all the difference and you can’t tell the two kinds apart. And, you can’t tell which of your important choices will yield a good outcome for you because it’s not always about good decision making. Sometimes it really is random.

She kept dealing and thinking and replaying and after awhile she wasn’t so much paying attention to the cards as she was in a sort of trance. Teddie was the Two of Clubs and her mom was the Queen of Hearts and for some reason she was the Nine of Spades. The man who ran Reel News was the King of Diamonds, of course, but there were two of them; no, not really, the Jack of Diamonds was pretending to be the King which made no sense.

The worst of it was that the Ten of Clubs was trying to get that Jack to kill Queen of Hearts who could only be saved by the King but he wouldn’t know it and the Jack of Hearts who was Nell could stop the King of Diamonds but only if the Queen of Clubs who was Yuden did some random thing she probably would not do.

Ariel leaned forward and put her head between her knees and took deep breaths until the dizziness subsided. She could do this, use this, to see the arbitrary combinations and how the little things worked together in ways in she’d never understood before.

She dealt again. And again. A different sense of how events tied together began to connect for her as she used the cards to sort out a complex tapestry that would have confused her logical mind.

After awhile Camille came in and lit the gas lamp, saying nothing. A little later Fernando brought her a sandwich. She mumbled thanks but never touched it. She just kept playing.

Not long after Teddie and Vanida tiptoed by her as they went to bed. Sleep came early in a world without electricity. By then, every card had taken on at least one identity or location or time. Some had many of them. It didn’t matter. After a while the confusion subsided and the interrelation of all of them made perfect sense to something deep within her brain.

(Images shown are from the various victory images used at the World of Solitaire website. They add an extra bit of fun to the game.)

(For a companion piece to this post, see Worry about those you love and write about what you know.)

The Future of Christmas

treeI write speculative fiction because asking “what if” is my favorite form of mental entertainment. Today I bought a Christmas tree, and a gift for a child I’ll never meet, and I started the process of figuring out what to buy for my own already well-supplied family.  While standing in line to pay, the speculative part of my brain kicked in, and I began to wonder what Christmas would be like in a hundred years, or even two. In my novel d4, I try to get my readers to think 337 years into the future, all the way to the year 2352. So then, what do you think Christmas will be like in 2352?

  1. Will there be such a holiday? Will the world have moved away from organized religion and its celebrations entirely? I know many Christians worry that someday there will only be a secular holiday season. If church attendance world-wide continues to drop, maybe this could happen. Or perhaps another religion will manage to convert so much of humanity that its traditions will replace Christian ones much the way Christian customs wiped out pagan celebrations. It could be an existing religion, I suppose, but I think something so sweeping would almost have to be something entirely new that takes hold over the next hundred years. What do you think? Is this possible?
  2. Will there even be humans left to celebrate it? You know: asteroids, aliens, computers taking over, epidemics, nuclear war and so on. Or will the humans who are left be far to concerned with mere survival to celebrate anything?
  3. On the other hand, maybe human existence has become so easy and pleasant that the need for holidays is all but gone. Every day is party day when your replicator can make you anything you want for free, you know. Christmas could be something history buffs remember, back when there were needs and wants.
  4. Perhaps the trend to commercialism continues, with the world’s yearly economy now dependent on the population of earth overspending every December. Perhaps laws dictate how much each family must spend as a minimum. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the ads start in February, and the decorations go up in August. By October the gift-giving slackers begin receiving notices from the state.
  5. Then again, maybe Christmas is much the same as it is now, except we finally get hover boards and flying cars. About time.

What I do know is that those who try to predict the future by extrapolating from the present make poor predictions. All of my above scenarios are extrapolations, and sure to be off of the mark. Check out this paragraph from d4:

Baldur stared out of his office window, considering black swans. Not real black swans, of course, but the theory for which they stood. As a man well schooled in all types of economics, Baldur was acutely aware of the occasional occurrence of an event that was outside of the realm of normal expectations and yet appeared so obvious in hindsight. He knew these metaphorical black swans by definition went on to produce significant consequences, and they were thought by some theorists to in fact be what drove human history.

I’ve come to agree that “Black Swans” are the main agents of changing the future in significant ways. Whatever December 25, 2352 is going to look like on earth, the big differences between now and then will be due to things that have not occurred to you and I, and yet will appear very obvious in hindsight.

One other way to try to imagine what sorts of changes 337 years could bring would be to look harder at a Christmas Day 337 years ago. I couldn’t find much specifically from 1678, but I found this wonderful excerpt from The Painter’s Apprentice, a book by historical fiction writer Charlotte Bettes. It is from her December 2012 post called Christmas in 1687, on her blog which is simply called simply Charlotte Bettes. Please check it out and contrast the day she describes with your own celebrations this year. How different is it, really? And do you think the characters in her story could possibly have predicted those differences? No, I don’t think they could have either.

For other slightly offbeat looks at Christmas, see my posts “Christmas is Not about Love, but“, “The Women of Christmas” and “Duct Tape and Christmas Cards.”


Seeing the future

Ariel, the hero of d4, lived in my head for years and I knew what she could do. She could see into the future. It wasn’t until I began writing her story, however, that I realized how complicated the very idea of precognition is.

27-Courage-23I’d already given serious thought to the pros and cons of a fixed future, and I’d thrown out the idea of a predestined universe.  Over my adult life I’ve heard compelling arguments that in a universe ruled by cause and effect, the future is as immutable as the past. Perhaps it is. But as long as I’m writing the book, there are going to be surprises and free will in the story, and any bits of prescience will work on the assumption that the future is a probability curve. Guess you could say I can’t write stories any other way.

But it turns out that there are many more vexing questions to consider.  How far into the future does she see? Why? How much does she understand about what she sees? Why doesn’t the whole process happen all the time and leave her overwhelmed and unable to function?

To sort some of this out, I researched famous psychics from Casandra and Nostradamus to their more modern counterparts. It seemed like many reduced their input by relying on divination techniques like crystal balls or going into a trance. They willed their visions, and went about a relatively normal life the rest of the time.

I knew that this wasn’t the way Ariel saw the future. In d4 it was going to come at her unbidden. Historically, psychics who experienced unwilling visions almost always had very little extraneous information to help put their data into context. This vagueness is often translated into fiction, and it has certainly made for some great stories over the years, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend half my book writing about Ariel trying to figure out what it was she was seeing. So I decided to approach clairvoyance more like memory. I assumed that a sight or sound or smell could touch off a short video clip in the mind, and that the brain would supply the context much as it would when one remembers, for instance, blowing out the candles on ones twelfth birthday.

That left the question of how far ahead she saw, and in that quandary I found the roots of my story.

Below is an excerpt from d4, taken from the scene when Ariel first meets another person who shares her gifts. Once I wrote the scene below, I had a pretty good idea of how precognition was going to work in the world I was creating.

Ariel stepped off the plane to her first view of the barren rocks mottled with bright colored lichens that make up the tundra. She had never set foot inside of the Arctic Circle before. Tiny flickers and flashes erupted as her boot touched the ground.

My premonitions are stronger here, she noticed with surprise. The cold dry air? The earth’s magnetic field? There had to be a reason. She added it to her list of things to try to figure out later.

While they were waiting for the luggage to be brought into the waiting area of the airport, Ariel wandered off, looking for a bathroom. She turned into an office and noticed a man’s legs sticking out from under a desk.

“Are you okay?” She felt like she should say something.

She heard him chuckle. “No, I’m in serious need of somebody to grab the other end of this wire. One man doing a two man job.” Ariel saw that he was trying to get some sort of computer cable to go up through a small hole in the desk.

“Let me help.” She came over, pulled the cord through and by acquired instinct plugged it into the monitor where it was clearly intended to go.

“Thanks,” he said with appreciation, as he wriggled out from under the desk. Then he noticed that she’d connected the cable. “A helpful tourist and one that knows how to connect hardware.”

“I can manage considerably more than plugging in a monitor,” she laughed. “IT training here, though I don’t use it enough these days. I’m Ariel. Passing through trying to hunt down the ladies room.”

“You came all the way to the arctic to find a place to pee?” he teased.

She rolled her eyes and when he held out his hand she took it without thinking.

“Siarnaq,” he said and Ariel saw a small spark in the air before their hands touched.

Then for a few seconds, neither of them could have said a word if they had wanted to.

For Siarnaq, the images he saw were so much larger than those he was used to—close-up and huge, like looking at something right in front of your face with a pair of binoculars. Amidst the blur of something too big to take in, he knew that he was finally seeing the future from his own lifetime. The prospect filled him with joy, but the images were just so close that he had no way to make any sense of them, The accompanying knowledge in his brain seemed to be coming at him like hundreds of birds chirping. We must not be designed to see what comes in our own lifetime, he reasoned.

To Ariel, the flickers of the distant future went wild in the corners of her brain, like far off flashing lights too remote for her to see the images that they were illuminating. This man matters in a future too far off for me to see, she thought. I wish I could enlarge these images somehow. We must not be able to see past the next several months. I guess that makes sense.

He let go of her hand slowly.

“You’re a seer.” He said it like he knew it for a fact. He studied her red hair, fair skin and blue eyes. She wasn’t of the People, or at least if she had Inuit ancestors they were few indeed. Had he ever met a seer who wasn’t mostly Inuit? He didn’t think so.

“You get visions of the future?” Ariel’s heart was starting to beat louder. She had never expected to be asking this question, much less to be in this situation for a second time in her life.

The Inuit man laughed. “The world is full of seers,” he said.

I had no idea that would be so good to know, she thought.

Siarnaq added gently. “You have a lot to learn. You’re with the tour group?” he asked. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Today, they give you time to shop and sight see. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

Two of my more useful written sources were:
Clairvoyance August 3, 2009 by Charles Webster Leadbeater. Publisher: Merchant Books ISBN-13: 978-1603862417
Seeing Your Future: A Modern Look at Prophecy and Prediction March, 1990 by John E. Ronner. Publisher: Mamre Pr; First Edition ISBN-13: 978-0932945389.
On a more humorous note, Rational Wiki offers a nice list of predictions about the end of the world (or universe). It sort of puts everything into perspective.

If you could see the future, would you want to?

It’s a big choice. Move in together? Go back to school? Retire early, have a child, take the trip of lifetime, marry, divorce, or quit your job? All of our lives have a dozen or so of these pivotal decisions. We often aren’t sure which path to take, but we do know that whatever choice we make, it will effect us for as long as we live.

good sign 3So here’s the question. If you could see the future, would you want to? Let’s not go as far as having you see it every day. We’ll keep it simple. How about supposing that you have the option of being granted precognition only for each of your life’s major decisions. Say yes to my gift and you will be given premonitions for each remaining big choice you have to make. Do you want that?

Before you answer with that quick yes or no, consider. How does precognition work? (For the purposes of this discussion you do have to agree that it does work, at least in the imaginary world we are discussing.) What you probably want to know in each case is what decision will make me happiest.  Hmm. That’s complicated. Happiest when? At first? Overall, averaged over your entire life? Or would you rather go for comparing the single happiest moment along each path? Or how about the fewest miserable moments?

While you are reflecting on that, consider that your choices also have consequences for others. Would you like to know which decision results in the greatest happiness for the most people? Or maybe you’d just like to know what choice brings more joy into the lives of the the people you care about a lot.  By the way, can you even define that group? How about the ones you haven’t met yet?

Lucky for you, the make-believe premonitions I am trying to grant you are not so dependable. You don’t get statistical results. You get something akin to snippets of enhanced videos. You’ll experience a few seconds of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions you are going to encounter if you go down that path, along with a little knowledge about your situation at the time. I’ll make this easier by giving you an example.

You’ve quit your job and you are moving to a new location of your choosing. You’ve narrowed it down to three places. People, climate, opportunities and ambiance all interweave into different advantages for each.

If you take my gift, you’ll see yourself in one location, standing miserable in the rain. You did like the idea of Seattle, remember? The scene shifts. There’s you, surrounded by friends laughing. You don’t care that it is raining outside. You have a sense that this is a celebration, and one of something important. Oh no. Now your alone on your couch crying. Does it have anything to do with what you were celebrating? Maybe not. Wait. Your holding a bloody knife in your hand. What? You glance down and see that you are cleaning a fish. Good grief. You take up fishing in Seattle? Forget that.

What about Sante Fe? Charleston South Carolina? The images and feelings that go with them march through your brain. Is that baby your child? Your grandchild? Does this little person make you happy? Or does it matter if they do? Does this little person cure cancer? Is curing cancer really a good idea? Your head is starting to hurt and you’re thinking that this seeing the future was not such a good idea.

IMG_1105That’s because the future is what you always knew it was. A mess of events and emotions that will take you through highs and lows and all the boring stuff in between as you love and live and make the best of things wherever you are.  It is true that maybe Seattle or Sante Fe or Charleston would have brought you something particularly special or awful and maybe that would have been good to know.  However, odds are much greater that all three choices will bring some good, some bad and whole a lot of whatever you make of it.

So take my gift or not. The secret is in knowing that it doesn’t much matter whether you do or not.

(For more thoughts on how my characters’ superpowers might affect their lives see my post Not writing books about shallow people leading exciting lives.)