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…

If you’d like to read a short blurb from each day of my journey, check out
Day 1. The Journey of 6000 miles
Day 2. Rules of the Road
Day 3. Just Don’t
Day 4. Bloom Here.
Day 5. Yes Aretha. Respect.
Day 6. No Trucks. Just Corn.
Day 7. Cry
Day 8. There’s No Place Like Home
Day 9. It’s Okay to Ask a Human for Help
Day 10. Always Bring an Onion
Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada
Day 12. I Want to Scream.
Day 13. Dusty Virgin
Day 14: Magical ride
Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be
Day 16. What Rules? What Road?
Day 17. If you get interrupted by a parade …
Day 18. I, Human
Day 19. A Border Crossing
Day 20. Someone to Help Me Get Home
Day 21. Time flies like an arrow and ….
Day 22. Stop, or Else …
Day 23. What’s Your Reality?
Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …
Day 25. Backing Up
Day 26. To Stop a Hurricane
Day 27. Lights Along My Path
Day 28. Grateful

 

 

The Number One Reason I Write Books

I write books. Why?

It is a reasonable question. I recently started participating in writer’s groups again and much about them has got me thinking.  A women well into her second novel told me of an acquaintance who has made it to the New York Times Best Seller list. Wow. Something to be in awe of, of course. My critique group-mate is also in awe of the woman’s process. To paraphrase, she read the top ten fiction books at the time, analyzed what they had in common, and wrote the perfect hybrid book, designed to succeed. And it did.

All I could think was “what a miserable way to write a book.” That brought me round to the essential question of this post. If I’m not writing to make a best seller list, what am I doing? I tried to be brutally, unflatteringly honest and I came up with seven reasons I choose to spend most of my free time on my laptop creating books. Some of them are pretty stupid.

This post is about the first answer that popped into my mind. It may not be my biggest reason, but it may be the one that keeps me writing novel after novel.

I have fun doing it. In fact, I have more fun making up a story than I have doing anything else. Yes, even that (although it is close.)

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t particularly enjoy rewriting, or proofreading, or formatting or all the other chores that take 80% of my writing time. I do enjoy research, but not that much. I hate marketing. I don’t do much outlining. But I love, absolutely love, making up stories and putting them down on paper.

I’ve told myself tales in my head for as long as I can remember, but committing the story to typed words moves it from an ephemeral daydream to a real thing. It can become more complex, be improved, and be reread and enjoyed. Seeing the words in front of me makes it better, and allows me to tell far longer tales.

The best part of it? It is finding out what happens. I always have an ending in mind, but I never know how my characters are going to get there, and they continually surprise me. They morph into better or worse or more complex people than I intended, they develop points of view I never considered, and they come up with ingenious solutions I swear I would never think of. (Or is that impossible?)

For me, that first draft is like watching a movie or reading a book except it is in a setting I picked, filled with characters I resonate with, and about things I like. Once I’ve got a story going, I can’t wait to get back to writing to figure out what will happen. Other forms of entertainment seem boring by comparison. I like my own stories better.

There you have it. Goofy but real. I write for my own entertainment.

Are there other reasons? There must be. I keep doing the other 80 per cent of the process over and over as well, no matter how much drudgery it is. Why? Perhaps the reason lies in the other six reasons that occurred to me. Those will be the subject of another post.

(Read more about why I write at My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing , I write because it’s cheaper than therapy, Nothing cool about modest ambitions, I love to be loved and Remember My Name.)

A better word than joy?

I knew from the beginning that my second novel would be centered around the theme of joy. My first novel was all about our connection to others; I wanted this one to celebrate the authenticity of being oneself.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets carried away with an idea, I decided to center the action around the place on the globe that was exactly opposite of Nigeria, where my my first novel took place. Turns out that location is just south of the equator, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This fact might have discouraged someone else, I but I was determined to introduce this symbolism of opposites into my already half-developed plot. So I delved deeper and discovered the island nation of Kiribati, and began to write a novel that encompassed a swath of the sea.

Just as “peace” seemed an inadequate word to describe x0, “joy” barely touched the surface of my overarching theme for y1. What I wanted was a word that meant

the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when a person is true to who they are.

We do need a word for that.

The book was orange in my head. Orange for sunsets over the Pacific and orange for crazy-strong exuberance and for all that glows. This had to be a book about the fire within.

I already knew that later in the series I would write a book that was blue, and it would be about the virtues that tug us in the other direction. I’m still struggling to find a single word that encapsulates the theme of my blue book, but I know that it is about something important, too.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?,  A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

Why would anyone call a collection of books 46. Ascending?

I spent most of my free time over the past six years writing a collection of six novels. I’d never written a book before and, now that I’m finishing the last one, I’m starting to puzzle through what possessed me to do such a thing.

It seemed like fun? I’d always wanted to write fiction? Why the hell not?

Part of the answer lies in something I wrote today to put at the end of the sixth book to explain to any curious reader who had stuck with me exactly why I called this collection of books 46. Ascending.

Here is how I explained it.

  1. It is an I Ching hexagram.
  2. It is what I came up with when I decided that my six proposed books could be made into an I Ching hexagram. Those with a female protagonist would have two lines and those with a male protagonist a single line and book one would be at the bottom and book six at the top because I was pretty sure that was how you were supposed to do it. I thought it was a cool idea.
  3. The lines make Sheng, the I Ching hexagram number 46, as I discovered when I looked up the above cool idea.
  4. Sheng answered the question that bothered me most. The question was not “will my books make money?” or “will I sell a lot of books?” It wasn’t even “will these be good books?” or “will I enjoy writing them?” Those would all have been fine questions. But, this I Ching hexagram answered my question “should I do this or not?”
  5. Researching Sheng, I read that “it is a time of development and progress, the direction is correct” and “hexagram 46 shows a time where a steady progression will occur where the predicted outcome is positive  and “keep working on your plans and maintain confidence in their success.” Those all sure sounded good to me.
  6. My research on 46 Ascending also put this quote in front of me. It is always better to fail in doing something than to excel in doing nothing. – Chinese Proverb . It is undoubtedly a good quote for anyone contemplating anything.
  7. I learned that Sheng was also referred to as the Symbol of Rising and Advancing, Ascending, Ascension, Rising, Promotion, Advancement, Sprouting from the Earth, and Organic Growth. Who can argue with all that?
  8. Sheng’s details included “The emphasis is on upward motion, from obscurity to influence, with growth that is supported by adaptability and an absence of obstacles.” and “Make a sincere effort to apply resolute effort against the forces of inertia, bending around obstacles that arise, and good fortune will follow.
  9. In other words, everything I read about the I Ching hexagram told me loud and clear “write the damn books.” So I did.
  10. Was the universe talking to me? Was I talking to myself? Am I lucky I didn’t put the lines in the reverse order? Those are all great questions. But the one I started to consider was how well did the hexagram fit in with the books themselves.
  11. If you asked me what this collection of books was about, from the beginning I would have told you it was about how all humans have so much more potential than they realize. We can improve, we can rise, we can ascend. Climb the mountain. Move towards the light to the south. You know. Grow.
  12. So this collection of books is named after an I Ching hexagram that not only got me off my butt and writing, but just happened to perfectly describe what it was I was trying to say. Go figure. At the least, it seemed reasonable to name the collection of books after it.

What I don’t address at the end of my novel is the question “did writing the books make me happy?” It’s an important question, but it’s important to me, and not really to my readers. That makes it a more appropriate topic for my blog.

Well …

I can tell you that I wrote these books filled with a sense of energy and purpose unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many days, writing wasn’t just what I wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. It was an addiction, an obsession, and a nepenthe against all the world’s ills. I let it consume me, and I enjoyed the ride.

I emerge at the other end, tireder, older, fifteen pounds heavier and with six years of my life mysteriously gone. But, I was lucky enough to have five people in this world who loved me throughout this process and I was lucky enough to have a way to make a living while I wrote that kept serious worries away. Neither is to be taken lightly and for both I count my blessings.

Everybody always tells you to pursue your passion in life. I don’t think that “everybody” has much of an idea of all that really entails. It changes you in ways you do and don’t like. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t always turn out well, certainly not in the Hollywood kind of way.

But once you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not having done it, if that makes any sense. Like not doing it wasn’t even an option, or at least it shouldn’t have been.

Is that happiness? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something even better.

 

And that’s the way it was, June 28, 1888

One of my best antidotes for information overload is history. There is something calming about returning to a world devoid of smart phones, cable news and (yes) blogging. Today, I was delighted to learn that exactly 129 years ago Robert Louis Stevenson left San Francisco for the South Seas.

Ah, islands in the Pacific. I am fascinated by that swath of the globe, although I’ve only managed to touch it twice. And Stevenson’s Treasure Island was certainly in the back of my mind when I wrote y1. I suspect that his more famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has helped inspire every writer after him who tried to craft a meaningful villain.

But there is more to his story. He was a Scotsman who studied civil engineering and law, and then upset his parents by opting to become a fiction writer instead. (They weren’t too happy when he became an atheist, either. History is silent as to which bothered them the most.)

Then he went and fell in love with an American divorcee, who he married. Although he had lifelong health issues, he traveled widely. He wrote about the importance of finding joy in ones life, even though he found himself at death’s door several times during his journeys.

After 1888, he spent most of his time in the South Pacific, settling with his family in Samoa. He died there and was buried overlooking the sea.

I’ve included a couple of my favorite quotes of his here. He was more of an inspiration than I realized.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, and June 30, 1940.)

 

 

Mindless entertainment? Or not?

We all need something to do to help us relax. Whether it is listening to music, knitting, or kick boxing, we need a place to go to shut out the noise around us. It’s part of leading a joyful life.

scrabbleOn Nov. 9 2016 I discovered that my little nepenthe, playing online word games through Facebook, had a major flaw. It was connected to Facebook and that meant that every angry, fearful or obnoxious thing being said by anyone I’d ever befriended floated by in the lower left corner of the screen. This clearly was not going to work, at least not for the next few weeks.

I’m not sure why I Googled solitaire, except that this game I’d seldom played struck me as the epitome of a simple, mindless activity. I ended up at a lovely place called World of Solitaire where it didn’t take long to discover that this game requires complicated strategy and a good memory, and it is fiendishly addictive.

solitaire2As I played game after game in the waning days of 2016, I realized that I had to adjust to the idea that I could not always win. I’m used to winning, and as a matter of personal philosophy I never think it is impossible. Yet the fact was that between 8.5 and 18% of the games I was playing could not be won no matter what I did. It seemed to be a timely lesson.

Then I began to realize that winning a single solitaire game doesn’t matter, it’s all about how many you games you can win in your time frame. I began to design strategies for myself, and each one sounded wise beyond the realm of cards.

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4.  Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5.  Always leave yourself an out if you can.

solitaireFunny, the number of games I won more or less doubled once I got my hands around these ideas. Then, for my own pleasure I added two more.

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.  (My favorite deck and background is shown to the left.

February is more than half over and I’m still playing solitaire. I may tire of it eventually but for now it continues to calm me down. I’m also putting more energy every day into trying to shape the politics of this country, doing my best to nudge both friends and strangers towards compassion, inclusion, and an optimistic view of who we are and how far we have come. These days I contact my congress people, I sign petitions, and I’ve even marched once and probably will again.

And as I do these things I tell myself

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5. Always leave yourself an out if you can.

And, just to make sure I enjoy the journey, I add

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.

(For more thoughts on Solitaire and life, see Solitaire and Nuclear War.  The rules for the version of solitaire that I play are shown below. The rules for my new found zeal for political engagement can be found all over the internet, including on Facebook, which I am once again using.)

rules