Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …

Las Cruces is a detour for us, but we have an old friend there and don’t know when we will be this close again. So … we are going to Las Cruces.

Today’s drive is just under five hundred miles and we opt to spend an extra four minutes keeping our day easy by staying on interstate. We’ve seen all the desert mountain scenery we can appreciate over the last few days. We just want to get there.

But first, we stop for breakfast in Trinidad’s finest restaurant. The breakfast tacos are terrific and the owner is wearing a t-shirt I love. He’s nice enough to let me take a picture. You never know when you are going to find something that makes your day.

We’ve allowed plenty of time to get to Las Cruces before dark (lesson learned) and arrive at our casita without incident. It’s a cute little house off a quiet dirt road, but it’s late afternoon in southern New Mexico. The house is hot. Really hot.

Inside it’s actually a single room with a bed and a small kitchen, and it has a room air conditioner stuck high in a window up over an armoire. It’s turned off, of course.

What the casita does not have is a chair or anything else to stand on to reach the controls for the AC.

This is ridiculous.

We try several ill-fated and bad ideas for getting the place cooled down when my husband notices a page of general info left by the owners for guests to read. It includes the usual wifi password and request to do ones own dishes, and one sentence that is key.

“Turn on the AC by flipping the light switch just to the right of the bed.”

Of course.

Well, at least I have found today’s rule of the road. When something makes no sense at all, go ahead and read the directions.

We meet our friend for beers and some of New Mexico’s finest “Mexican” food and as we laugh over old times, something about the night feels very Jimmy Buffet. I’m glad we made the detour.

 

Day 18. I, Human

All week I look for insights about what it means to be human. After all, the theme of this event is I, Robot. Some of the art, the cars, and the camps riff on this idea, and I’m determined to locate bits of wisdom in these creative endeavors.

Why? Even as I finish up my first six novels, putting the finishing touches on the collection and tying it all up with a bow for the new release of my six books, I am working on my Next Big Thing. It will be a sci-fi crime series, I hope, and will play with the idea of robots and humans and their differences.

The Man himself has a faintly robotic look to him this year, and art on AI surrounds me. Yet, day after day the inspiration I seek eludes me.

I’ve also yet to find a good way to spend the hot mid-afternoon hours here, so I try a new approach. This year some of the art cars have agreed to participate in BAIT, a public transportation of sorts. Official stops have been designated along with a half hour range for pickups, and lucky passengers will be transported out to The Man and on to The Temple and back. Maybe I’ll find my kernel of inspiration on the ride.

Only the ride never comes. I show up 5 minutes before the time range starts and wait 10 minutes past it, as the dust kicks up and my wait way out on Avenue L gets increasingly unpleasant. A nearby camp invites me to come inside and chill, but after a few minutes of refuge inside their large tent I worry I won’t see my ride. Right before I give up, I have my epiphany.

This is totally stupid.

I mean it. It makes no sense. I am standing in the middle of a desert so inhospitable that no life form except microbes lives here. It is hot and miserable. The food is lousy and I have no appetite. The liquor all gives me a headache. It’s crowded and noisy and the sounds never stop. The porta-potties stink and I’ve no where to brush my teeth and I can’t even get a damn art car to stop for me even though the sign says it should have been here by now.

What’s worse? I paid $400 to do this. I drove nearly 3000 miles, spent at least another $1000 on supplies, and used up most of my free time for the last month getting my shit together to be out here. And  ….. here comes the epiphany. I’m glad I did it. I’m enjoying myself. Worse yet, I’m thinking about coming back here and doing this again. Seriously…

Do you think you could program a machine to do that?

I contend that the odd assortment of things that are bring joy here aren’t quite the same for any two people, and are radically different for many. There is no one answer, or twelve answers, about why this works. Somewhere in the quasi-random process called evolution which created us as a species, and the equally bizarre series of events that shaped each of us as individuals, are little beads of capacity for joy that can’t be understood or duplicated. In fact, there is no logical need to understand or duplicate them.

Design a machine to behave logically, Or randomly or some combination thereof. Design it to seek joy when its needs are fulfilled, and take a stab at defining those needs. Design it any way you like. I contend that no thought-out effort results in a significant number of your models choosing to go to Burning Man once, much less to return.

Being here doesn’t make sense. It’s a human thing, machines. You wouldn’t understand.

I finish my thoughts, give up on BAIT, and head back towards my camp. I notice one camp has erected a small café, complete with a Maitre ‘d out front, and I decide to get some lunch. He seats me, presenting my menu with great flourish, and I see several other customers stifling grins. What’s going on?

“Take your time, dear” a lady sitting next to me says.

“I know I couldn’t make up my mind,” adds another.

I open the menu. It says “Cappuccino.”

That’s it.

“I think I’ll have a cappuccino,” I tell the waiter.

“Excellent choice,” he says.

The good news is it is excellent cappuccino.

Over the five full days I am at Burning Man, I end up working three four-hour shifts as an assistant stage manager at the Center Camp, and I enjoy myself immensely. On the first of these shifts I discover that if an act doesn’t show up, it’s our job to find someone in the audience to perform. The show must go on.

On my second shift, I discover that if the audience will not produce an act, we must. When I arrive, the previous three acts have all been no shows, and the entire stage crew has been up there for hours doing everything they can think of. Shifts are staggered, so I am greeted by a sound technician and the head stage manager having an on stage debate about what the worst processed foods are. Four or five sleepy burners sip coffee and watch with mild interest while the rest of the stage crew looks at their watches.

It seems only right to provide some relief, so I offer to take the mic and share the story of my day. As I launch into my tirade about how stupid it is to be here, a few more coffee drinkers wander over. By the time I’m arguing no one could program a machine to make an informed non-random choice to attend Burning Man and furthermore, there is no reason one would ever want to, I’ve amassed a couple of dozen listeners and I’m even getting comments from the audience. Not bad for my first time on stage.

Today’s rule of the road?

It doesn’t have to make sense, at least not if you’re human.

Today’s song?

Not one I’d normally pick, but it’s a shout out to the person who invited me here in the first place. Years ago he and friends designed and built a camp with a large shade structure and a viewing platform to climb up to. The supplies have been passed along to others, but he still enjoys going back to visit. They called it the ICU Baby camp. I understand this song is still played there often…

 

 

 

When is it time for “More”?

I’ve spent the last couple of years downsizing, and trying on the idea that a simpler life can be a happier life for me. I’ve turned to finding small pleasures and treasures to be thankful for, and to not basing my actions on always wanting more. This flies in the face of much of my upbringing and culture, so even with this conscious effort I am still far from ascetic. But in spite of the ways that this change in outlook have challenged me, I have to say it has been a joyful journey.

But is it always bad to want more? How about more love? More kindness? More simple decency? More popcorn?

Image result for more usherI’m in the process of looking at the last song referred to in each of my books. y1 is largely a book about finding joy, and the last song is “More” by Usher Raymond IV, an American singer, songwriter, dancer, and actor. This has got me me thinking about the idea of how “more” relates to happiness, or if it does at all.

Over the past few months I’ve also been writing about a survey of world happiness and my fascination with the fact that six attributes appear to determine how happy a large group of people is, on the average. Groups that are basically healthy, wealthy enough, have social connections, are free to make their own choices, live in a fair society and are surrounded by those who generally behave kindly are — no surprise — happier than those who live in societies that lack one or more of these attributes. Individual mileage does vary; we all know those who can manage misery in the best of circumstances and others who smile through the worst of them.

growing-bolder-10So what about more? In another post I talked about how money only adds joy up to a certain point. After basic needs and some wants are met, more cash has little to no effect on a person’s happiness, no matter how much they think that it will.  One can argue about having too many social connections, or too much individual freedom, I suppose. One can even argue that a society can be too kind. But can you be too healthy? Have a society that is too fair? Is there always a point where enough is enough? The science fiction writer in me is having no trouble at all imaging a world where any one of these “happiness builders” is taken too far.

But sometimes, we do need more. I’m going to argue that we don’t need more fast food chains, but we could do with more locally grown produce. We don’t need more years added to our lives, but we do need our later years to be more healthy and happy. More fairness and kindness would be wonderful; we’re a long way from overdoing either in our society.

y1 is the only novel that I ended with a song. After all the adventures of the book have concluded and before the epilogue starts, the foursome of main characters gather for one last walk on the beach …. over flaming coals. Yes, that is something this group would do to celebrate.

After an uneventful week and a half at sea, they reached Toby’s island a little after dawn and happily stretched their legs with a long walk on the beach. Toby had decided to keep the place, but he thought it wise to scale back the island’s processes so he did not have to visit so often. Zane, Afi, and Joy spent the day helping him dismantle the hydroponic gardening apparatus and securing the house, and its energy and water gathering capabilities, to better exist without a caretaker for longer periods of time.

As the afternoon wound down, they prepared for a feast out on the sand. The coals glistened while the fish were cleaned and cooked. Wine was poured. A salad was made. Amid stories and jokes, they ate the last of the food.

Then Afi turned on his favorite new RedOne Jimmy Joker remix of Usher’s recent dance floor hit “More.” As the pulsating sounds began to capture the group, Afi gave them a questioning look.

“Like the man suggests, is now the time to bring fire to our dance floor?” he asked.

“Definitely.”

“Of course.”

“Why the hell not?”

A stretch of clouds in the west provided a flame like show of color while Afi arranged the embers carefully into a small orange and grey rectangle in the sand. Then one by one, each member of Miss Demeanor’s crew stood up, improvised a jolly bow to the others, and calmly, yet purposefully, walked over the glowing coals.

For each of the songs I refer to, I seek out a live performance to link to in the electronic version of my novels. This amateur video of “More” shot in Rotterdam in 2011 manages decent audio quality along with a nice mix of close ups of, crowd enthusiasm, and panning out to capture the dancing and gymnastics on stage. Great fun. Enjoy it, and think of the times when we all need more.

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, and The fairest of them all?)

Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”

Reason number one: Love makes us happy, and happiness is wonderful.

Several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I’m intrigued that six attributes account for most of this variation, and I summed them up as health, wealth, freedom, love, fairness and kindness. I’ve already written about the first three and today I’m thinking about love.

life lessons6Now, the people doing this survey were not asking questions about romantic love, wonderful as is it. They used a broader definition, by asking something more like “do you have people in your life that you care about and can depend on?” This careful wording included family members and close friends along with intimate partners, and as far as I’m concerned it covered every type of love inclined to bring one happiness. (Unrequited love for someone who does not know you exist doesn’t exactly bring a lot of smiles. A spirited discussion could be had as to whether it is love at all, but that is outside the scope of this post.) Suffice to say, if you have people, or a person, you care about and who care enough about you back that you feel you can count on them, then you have love. Lucky you.

love wins2. “Love Wins” has become associated with the LGBTQ community’s struggles for marriage equality and other rights. I’m a heterosexual woman with a 34-year traditional marriage, and an avid supporter of equality in every sense for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Zane, the main character in y1, is gay, and I did my best to present his love affair with Afi as a beautiful thing to be cheered on by anyone with a heart. In the real world, friends, relatives and co-workers of mine are LGBTQ, and every time “Love Wins” it makes me smile too. Love is funny that way. It likes to see more love.

SPLC3. Love wins every time that hate does not. I’m also an avid supported of the fine work that is done by the SPCL (Southern Poverty Law Center) even though donating to them means that I get a lot of letters from them asking me for more money. It’s okay. I glance through them all and give when I can. Recently I got one such letter that moved me more than usual. It discussed the nine people killed a year ago in the white supremacist attack at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and noted that “Hate won’t win” were the brave words Alana Simmons spoke to her grandfather’s killer in Charleston.

Yes,“Hate won’t win” are brave words coming from someone who has been grievously wronged, and the words brought a tear to my eye. I know that love wins every time that hate does not.

cosmic conduit 24. The last reason has to do with music. I’m fixing up the music pages on each of my blogs, and today I was expanding my post about David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love.  As the lyrics to One Love say …. “if we stand together than we’ll be okay.” You know, more love wins kind of stuff… and it’s what got me started on this post.

Think of how many great songs there are about love. Luckily, far more than those about fear, hate and hopelessness, although I will concede that there are a few great songs about those emotions too. Yet in the grand overview of musical topics, love wins and I’m glad.

I’d forgotten about exactly how I’d referred to the song in the book, and when I found the excerpt it made me smile.

Joy felt like she was living two lives at once. In one life, she taught Samoan third graders by day, dressed demurely in lightweight long-sleeved tops and loose colorful skirts to her ankles, and pretended to be Afi’s wife by night. Given the vast number of options open to humanity in 2010, it wasn’t a bad life. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t hurting, she had a friend nearby, and she was doing useful work. Life came a lot worse.

In her other life, she sailed the ocean, barefoot in a tank top and gym trunks. Her hair blew free while her body moved softly with the thunk of the boat hitting the waves and with the rhythm of her latest favorite song. For the past few weeks David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love had been about every third selection on her MP3 player, and when she wasn’t listening to it she was generally singing the song in her head while she imagined Toby’s hand on her thigh as he sat at the helm of Miss Demeanor. She would see his hint of a smile as his fingers started to rise higher up her leg and then each time he would turn to her, with his soft brown eyes asking her a question. As the song picked up tempo she felt herself smiling her answer back to him and then he always set the sails and they went below deck where the song was playing loudly and life was very, very good.

Of course, that other life existed only in her mind. But anyone who had ever been in love would know that it was the more important of her two lives.

Ah, yes, that romantic love stuff does bring us joy, even when it is just in our imagination.

I confess to having a weakness for amateur videos that make me feel like I am standing right  at a concert and this simple and seldom viewed video of One Love being performed at Electric Zoo in 2011 took me in with its tag line of “right place right time last song.” I’ve had that feeling and it’s a fine one. Go ahead and sing along with the audience, and enjoy letting love win in one more way.

 

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

Of awkwardness, birds and monsters

I have a secret motto for my writing. If I put it in my blog it isn’t going to be secret anymore, so suffice to say it has to do with leaving my fears behind as I pen my prose. I believe that if you comfort zoneconstrain yourself to write only what others expect, or what you think others want to see from you, or what you think is acceptable, then you will never write anything great.

So I was happy to see this on twitter the other day, tweeted by @HeyJamie, who is really Jamie Jo Hoang , author of “Blue Sun, Yellow Sky.” I’m not a big liker and re-tweeter, but this got them both.

Which brings me to the song “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters” by MGMT. Not the song itself, which I’ve loved ever since the first time I heard it because it somehow makes me think of magic, but rather my mention of the song in my novel y1 and the scene it was used in.

y1 is the story of a young man who can reshape his body at will. This is all well and good for his solving crimes but if you start to think about it a little more, sooner or later you end up doing this.

Zane had seldom altered his shape to appear female, but except for his height there was no particular barrier to doing so. He could approximate breasts and wider hips. A wig would work wonders. He could add years, and a more ambiguous ethnicity. He would practice making himself as short as possible. The stooping of age would help. Meanwhile, he needed to learn more about a part of Penthes that he had, up till now, ignored, like most people. That was the beauty of the janitorial group. They just did not get a lot of attention.

In his office, Zane began to gather supplies. A janitor’s jumpsuit just a bit too small for Zane, women’s sneakers, and an unattractive salt and pepper woman’s wig were locked in this bottom left drawer along with an old iPod holding the brightest, shiniest pieces of electronic dance music and remixes that Zane had been able to find.

This last item was so much more than his favorite songs. Over the past months he had discovered how he could use music as a tool to push his body to new limits, with the music he loved helping him concentrate as he became ever more adept at controlling his appearance at will. He had finally, reluctantly, let himself begin to refer to his gift in his own mind as “shape shifting” and he now thought of this particular music as his cache of shape shifting songs.

He plugged the iPod into his computer and let himself enjoy the wonderful Holy Ghost remix of MGMT’s “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” Zane savored the ocean imagery and the upbeat tempo of the song for a moment, then as he began to coax his body into another form, Zane tried to imagine how wonder itself might be shaped.

IMG_1625I don’t write erotica, so I didn’t end up taking this nearly as far as it could have gone, and yet, well, my hero’s inevitable transformation from male body to female body made me squirm a little at the fuzzy line between the genders. It was probably a good squirm for me to have, given that I live in a world that increasingly acknowledges how complicated human sexuality is and encourages every human to discover and be in the shape that is right for them.  I welcome this enlightened acceptance, but philosophical agreement doesn’t always convey complete ease with something, at least not right away.

So, as so often happens, my writing took me out of my comfort zone and I was the one who gained the most from it. My hero Zane changed his gender a few times before the book was over. I don’t know what my various readers thought of it, but by the last edit of y1, I was better off.

Back to twitter. One of my other favorite tweets came via writer Jose Iriarte, who described himself in third person as “a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher …  [who] writes because he can’t afford therapy.”

Exactly.  Except for the Cuban-American and math teacher part, of course. Otherwise, that’s it exactly.

While pondering your own monsters and other discomfort zones, you can listen to and enjoy Zane’s favorite Holy Ghost Remix of “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.”

 

 

“I Need A Dollar”

Every so often an artist captures a complex problem in a simple way. I’m in awe of the photo or sketch that conveys nuances in a glance, and of the poem, song or piece of flash fiction that evokes layers of meaning in its few words. The best of popular music manages this, I think. I put the song “I Need A Dollar” by Aloe Blacc in this small group.

Working hard, can’t get a break, can’t get ahead. Why is it all around me? Substance abuse for comfort? Substance abuse as part of the problem? Which came first? Is this life’s plan for me? Do I get some kind of reward after death for my perseverance? Or perhaps not. Maybe I should just give up now? Too tired to think it through. Another drink? Another day. It has to get better. Doesn’t it?

unlevelI hear a lot of questions in this song, and a lot of anguish, and the odd hope that the teller’s tale might be worth a few dollars in the end. Yes, it is a song to think about when you contemplate building a level playing field in this world.

Which brings me to the fact that I recently began volunteering at a shelter, and yesterday one of the employees discovered that I was from Houston. She felt compelled to share with me that Houston is the home of her favorite minister, someone I had never heard of named Joel Osteen.LAKEWOOD-CHURCH I’m not big on evangelical ministers or mega churches, but she went on about how great this guy was, so I looked him up. Yup, he has about 43,000 people in his church, is worth about 56 million, and lives in a ten million dollar home. What a great man. And, as the shelter worker pointed out to me, his wife is gorgeous, too.

Okay. Given what I know of evangelical churches, I suspect that most of this man’s money has come from people who desperately “need a dollar” and have been persuaded by him to tithe the tiny bits of what they do have to one who promises to bring them better fortune in this life or the next. Clearly, the person who is getting better fortune out of this is Mr. Osteen.

bottleYes, people can do anything they want with their limited income, and yes, most probably get some sort of comfort from this guy. At least I hope that they do. None-the-less I found his very existence to be even more discouraging than the verse about the singer’s good friends whiskey and wine. There are so many shitty ways to take money from the tired and discouraged who barely have it. And we keep coming up with more.

So many ways to lose. Maybe not a single way to win. Is this the way HAS to be?

So I listened to the song again, hoping that maybe Aloe Blacc had hidden an answer of some sort in with all his questions.

No, not really. But I continue to admire a singer/songwriter who at least asks the questions well.

(Note: I refer to the song “I Need A Dollar” in my book y2. Enjoy this excerpt and the link to my favorite video of the song which follows.)

Afi, meanwhile, had used most of his remaining cash to buy a used bicycle at a thrift store that he found near their rent-by-the-week apartment. Joy was annoyed at the frivolity of the purchase and said so, until Afi pointed out with a trace of irritation that he was trying to find a way to contribute. If he could get around, he might be allowed to perform for tips at one of the tourist places, bringing in at least a little cash under the table while she sought out the more dependable teaching work for which she was qualified.

She apologized with a simple “I’m sorry” but that evening as she watched him head off to towards the nice hotels on his beat up bike with his fire knife dancing supplies on his back, the Aloe Blacc song “I Need a Dollar” played in her head. As she sang along to the lyrics of a man desperate to make ends meet, she thought that perhaps she had sold Afi short by not recognizing his talents or his ingenuity. She owed it to him not to make that mistake again.

Late that night they shared a mattress and the comfort of worrying together.

This video of Aloe Blacc performing “I Need a Dollar” with The Grand Scheme at Southpaw in Brooklyn, New York, lets you see the artist close up and feel the fun he has performing this serious song. But the best part is the last two minutes, when he mentions his Jamaican roots and then adds on a short version of the song, reggae style. His compassion comes through along with his smile.

You Make Me High

The celebrations have wound down, and the fitness center parking lot is almost full as we collectively turn towards the gods of “let’s get this nonsense under control.” Less food, less alcohol, fewer late nights, and no more spending, we promise with one voice. At least through January.

I’m cleaning up things professionally and personally here, and am back to documenting the music I refer to in each novel. I love the songs I chose for my main characters, but it is a little more work to do this kind of blogging. Just writing whatever I feel like is so much easier.

But, it is January. Time to get serious and get the things that need doing done. So I was happy to find that the first song up was Kelis’s sensual, beautiful “Fireworks.” Ah, a bit of the December celebrations lingers on in this music.

What follows is a short excerpt from y1 about the song, and then then her classic video which somehow makes me think of the way every New Years Eve should feel.

The threesome continued to work together with a soft, easy rhythm, but Toby knew that the situation worked well because he was clearly in charge. In some situations, like on a small boat on a big sea, democracy remains a poor tool for day-to-day decision-making. So he gave reasonable orders with ample information, and his crew of two complied and gave input when asked or when they felt they had something important to contribute. It worked.

The only area of command that Toby gracefully relinquished was his control of the music. Clearly he was never going to enter the third millennium tune-wise if he didn’t let somebody younger serve as the boat DJ. He had to smile as Joy and Afi spent hours collaborating quietly over Joy’s MP3 player and selecting song sequences for his evaluation. Many got a thumbs down within seconds, before the three of them finally realized that current dance music was the one genre that they all consistently liked. So the latter days of the journey were spent listening to 2010’s top hot dance club songs, which had been downloaded by Joy in Fiji.

True to his promise to provide Toby with more current music about fire, Afi frequently blared the new Kelis single “4th of July” while he and Joy often belted out the lyrics in an effort to drown out the sound of the boat’s engine. After a couple of days Toby joined in the singing, and finally Kelis’ song became the preferred way of dealing with the occasional engine noise as baritone, tenor, and alto combined with all the volume each could produce. Joy promised Afi that she would download the video for him once they got to Toby’s little island hideaway. He just had to see all the great fire scenes in it.

Toby had to admit that he was enjoying the camaraderie and even just the distractions provided by his crew. Would their loyalty be as strong if they knew more about him? He tried to remember how he had left things at his place. What all was lying around? Would his crew even recognize the evidence of the other life he led? Most likely not. Nervously cleaning up once they arrived would only make him look dodgy. His best bet would be to open the place up to them and count on his new friends’ lack of interest in anything suspicious.

You can buy it at Amazon.