Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be

Participating, as opposed to standing around gawking, is valued here, so as I planned this trip I sought out a place where I could contribute to make the magic happen. It’s Monday morning. The dust is resting and the sky is blue here at Burning Man and I’m off for my first shift as an assistant stage manager for the Center Cafe.

I like the idea of this stage, where only original material is performed twenty-four hours a day. Years of writing self-published science fiction has left me with a huge soft spot for artists of all types who summon up their inner muse and then unveil those fragile creations in front of a potentially hostile world.

When I arrive, I find a universe that is gentler and more accepting than I hoped. Staff and performers hug, compliment and encourage. Some acts are polished and great fun to watch. Others are raw creations, not ready for prime time elsewhere. Yet, they are cheered on by this coffee-sipping audience that seems to understand the fragility of nascent artistry .

I receive quick and generous praise from everyone for being a warm, helpful and happy human. How odd. Is this worthy of praise?

Then it occurs to me. Back in the default world, I often work at being less helpful than I want to be. Less warm, less encouraging. I make an effort to smile less. I’ve had decades of signals from others that my natural behavior is at best odd and at worst downright annoying.

Here? I’m not doing that. And they seem to like it. A lot. Wow.

After four joy-filled hours of finding kind words for everyone that crosses my path, I’m high as a kite. I’m being myself and it is more fun than I’ve had in a long while.

Burning Man is considered by many who don’t know much about it to be a yearly drunken and drugged-out Bacchanalia involving sex, nudity and general bad behavior. Yes, I suppose there is some of that, though I’ve encountered little to none.  Camp mates tell me most of the hard partying I’ve heard of will happen late in week when non-participants pour in. The little that is happening now? You really have to go looking to find it.

Thanks to people I’m close to, I already know of other sides to this event. There is the self-reliance of erecting what is essentially a tent city for 80,000 in a place where the alkaline soil is so damaging that there is zero plant and animal life. That’s right: no cacti, no lichen, no ants, no scorpions, no bugs. Nothing lives here, except for a lone type of microbe in the soil. And 80,000 people for one week every year.

There is also a sense of community. We help each other; we give gifts of words, actions and things. As I leave the Center Cafe I wander around, stumbling on the sizable AA area set up to encourage burners who need to avoid altered states. I stop at the mobility camp, providing aid to burners likely to find life here even more challenging.

I can see the temple in the distance. Each year it is designed by a different artist. Over the course of the week it will be filled with notes and photos and memorabilia from those who have died this past year, along with musings and memories that are meaningful to this year’s participants. Sunday night, after the man has burned and the weekend crowds are gone, the temple will be set aflame. I’m already fascinated by this and I pause outside the tent of the temple guardians. Maybe one year that will be me ….

I climb a platform to look over this rapidly growing tent city. I found it a little presumptuous when I entered on Saturday and was given the traditional greeting for this event. Welcome home.

This isn’t my home, I thought then. But now, I can see how in some way it just might be.

Today’s rule of the road? It is a bad idea to pretend to be meaner or more miserable than you are, just to make meaner and more miserable people like you.

Today’s song? I had a few ideas for this one, but I finally settled on Jewel performing with a live orchestra. Give this video a few seconds, she does appear and I’ll think you enjoy what you see.

 

 

 

 

Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada

I have a six hour drive ahead of me today as I head west out of Moab on I70 to Ely Nevada. The first two hours are sheer joy. Red cliffs are all around, traffic moves well, and the morning is cool. I drive with the windows down, singing along with my music and wondering why I get to lead such a fun life.

Of course, this doesn’t last.

Everything changes shortly after I turn on to state highway 50. As I descend out of the mountains, the temperature rises 20 degrees and the scenery turns to endless scraggly sage. I enter one of the weirdest stretches of road I have ever traveled upon.

I grew up in Western Kansas and most people consider it pretty desolate there, but it is an overpopulated mass of humanity compared to this part of western Utah. For long stretches, I do not see another car or a building of any kind. I have no phone service. The sun blares down and I go to AC.

I pat my dashboard. Not a good place to breakdown, I whisper to my trusty FJ Cruiser. Fortunately, she understands and agrees.

Then I hit the road construction. Or rather, the road construction signs. They insist I slow down to 35 mph, so of course I do. I creep along looking for either people or machinery. Neither appears. The asphalt looks new, and some stretches are missing a center line, but that’s the only sign of roadwork. I let my speed creep back up. If going 35 mph feels slow on a normal highway, it feels like sitting still out here.

I’m just about back up to 65 mph when I see another sign. This one wants me to go 45. Okay, I play along. Again, no workers, no machinery, no other cars going my direction and only a rare one going the other way. I feel silly driving 45. After a while, I creep back up again.

This goes on four or five more times, with each lowered speed limit slightly different, and never a sign saying it is okay to resume normal speed. It has ceased to be amusing when I begin to round the crest of a small hill and notice the top of a vehicle off the right. Surely not, I think. But just in case, I slow down to 40 mph.

Yup. It’s a big ol’ sheriff’s truck, setting smack dab in the absolute middle of nowhere hidden by the only hill for miles. As I go by, he steps out of the vehicle and points something at me, a speed detection device I assume. By then I’m doing 34 mph and giving him the finger in my head.

Doesn’t this man have anything better to do?

No, he doesn’t. Before long I notice him at a distance in my rear view mirror. I slow down. He slows down. I speed up. He speeds up. I’m contemplating all sorts of crazy reactions when Rule 11 solidifies in my mind.

Avoid unnecessary trouble. Just avoid it.

Is trouble ever necessary? Yes, I tell myself. There are fights that need to be fought, causes that should be championed. But … doing something stupid because of one lone sheriff determined to collect a fine is not a cause worth messing up a perfectly fine day for.

It’s about twenty miles to the Nevada border. I can do this. I slow down to 40 mph and creep along. A mile from the border, he pulls a u-turn and heads back into Utah to find someone else to pick on.

Just inside Nevada there is this wonderful little establishment surrounded by miles of nothing, selling gas and a offering a dim room full of singing, blinking slot machines. I use the restroom and consider playing a machine as a thank you for the facilities, then opt for treating myself to a ginger ale instead.

“Have a nice day,” the young man chirps.

“I will. I’m so glad to have made it to Nevada.”

He nods like he understands and I think maybe he does. It could be the sort of thing he hears from half a dozen or so people every day ….

My travels end well with a nice meal in Ely at a place called Cell Block Steakhouse. Each table is it’s own little jail cell. Cute, huh? Maybe not so much so after the day I had. Yet, it could have ended far worse.

Seeking a song for the day, my mind went straight to this, my favorite song ever  about a man trying to avoid trouble. It makes me laugh every time I hear it, and I especially like this recent live version.

 

 

 

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?)

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.)

 

 

Am I capable of learning to like anything?

I conducted psyche experiments on myself when I was a child. You can’t blame me. There were things I needed to know, and I was my only cooperative subject. For instance, were all my preferences acquired tastes? This was important. If they were, then maybe I would eventually like beer, which was good because this appeared to be a necessary component to getting along as a teenager. On the other hand, it meant I might eventually wear pink polyester stretch pants like my mother, which was a horrifying concept. Either way, I had to know.

teaI also drank hot tea as adolescent, and somehow ended up with a box of Lapsang Souchong tea. If you’ve never tried it, it has a strong smoky taste and the first time I had it I gagged, then realized I had the perfect tool for my experiment. Could I change my own mind, and learn to love the taste of this tea?

I made an impressive effort, concocting strange myths about the origin of the taste relating to magic creatures in the woods drying the leaves over tiny bonfires and telling myself the burning embers imparted unknown powers to the daring humans willing to sip the strange potion. It worked. I slowly convinced myself that the taste was mysterious and intriguing, and once I began to enjoy it I could acknowledge that the myths were hogwash and it just plain tasted good to me. I still like it to this day, and story of how I came to do so makes me smile.

bonfireMy twelve-year-old brain didn’t think to take this to the next step, and I’m glad it didn’t. Lapsang Souchong tea is all well and good, but could I have forced myself to like, I don’t know, human blood, or, well, fill in any number of things for which I’m glad that I don’t have a yen. I was happy finding out that I could convince myself to like something if I worked hard enough at it. The question I didn’t ask was: could I get myself to like anything?

Or maybe the better question would have been: could I get myself to want to get myself to like anything?

I’m writing this blog on January 20, 2017, the day of inaugurating a president for whom I have no respect. In spite of my Midwestern working-class roots, I do not identify with his supporters. I consider my experiment with Lapsang Souchong tea, and wonder if I could feel differently?

I realize that there are three very different things are going on.

One, there is politics. I mean actual policy preferences. Mine are the result of a lifetime of observation and analysis and they reflect my core beliefs. I’ve agreed with some U.S. presidents more than others, and none of them completely, but I have respected that every single one of them was trying to do what he thought was best. But I don’t even know what this president believes in; he’s been conducting a reality show for over a year, not sharing his vision. I do dislike most of his choices in advisors, but I realize that is not the real source of my disrespect. I may not agree with his selections but these men (they are mostly men) are entitled to their world view. As an adult, I can hold a certain amount of understanding for the opinions of others.

barbecueThen there is style. Not his style; he acts like a flashy rich guy who is full of himself and I don’t think anyone actually likes that. I mean the style of his supporters. I don’t feel commonality with them because mostly their tastes aren’t mine. But they could be. I can teach myself to like a lot of different things and I still am. I could enjoy country music and barbecue instead of yoga and wine and I would be every bit as happy and fine a human being. That’s what Lapsang Souchong tea taught me. Taste is taste. Mine isn’t better than yours, and no one’s taste is unworthy of respect.

But it’s the third component that is the driving force behind my lack of regard, and that is trust. I don’t trust this man because he has raised saying anything he pleases to an art form. Half-truths, quarter-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out as needed. People are insulted and belittled to serve his quest for popularity, much like in the world of an adolescent. Slights are responded to without reflection on the consequences, to him or to his country. And I don’t think you can teach yourself to like being led by, or being at the mercy of, someone you cannot trust.

Picture3Forget the politics, forget the style. The heart of the matter here is the heart. There is some inherent core decency, a certain regard for truth and a desire for kindness that I cannot define in words so much as I can feel in my heart, and no amount of effort will get me to want to embrace a lack of this. In fact, nothing would make me want to make the effort to do so.

Looks like it took a few decades for me to finish answering my own question, but I finally did.  No, I cannot get myself to like anything, and I’m glad that I can’t.

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?)

This box went everywhere with me

On April 28 I gave my king-sized bed away to a stranger, and for the next fifty-five nights I slept on the beds and couches of family, friends and a few hotel chains. It was a transition I orchestrated, born of selling a house sooner than expected while still needing to work and save money before moving across the country. I’ve known folks who’ve volunteered in Haiti and Kenya for longer, others who served in harm’s way in dangerous conditions. I would be safe and comfortable, so my little stint without my own place hardly seemed to qualify as an adventure. It even sounded easy.

mind unleashed 2But life is relative, isn’t it? After fifteen years with my toothbrush in the same place, I found being afloat disconcerting. Like most poor swimmers, I looked for things to grab onto. I was lucky in what I found. Two years ago I started a daily qigong practice, and my fifteen or so minutes a day of moving meditation became an anchor. Greek yogurt, readily available and easy to eat, was my daily bread. While putting the house on the market I worked to develop the habit of sipping water whenever I became tired or anxious, and this routine worked remarkably well once I was adrift. (As a plus, I was better hydrated than I have ever been in my life.)

My most effective idea, however, was an eighteen by thirty inch box I threw together just before closing. It was meant to hold a few comforts that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase, but over two months in turned into more than that. It became my treasure box, a child-like source of comfort that I carried in to wherever I was staying. As I added new items to it and threw other things out, it became a picture of the woman I had become. What did I really need to be happy. Which comforts did I rely on? This box was not about what I wanted people to think I was like. It was about the real me, trivial as that might be.

Contents:

1. a thin microfiber blanket
2. an extension cord
3. to go coffee cups and lids for taking that last cup with me in the car
4. a tote bag with a picture of my husband, 3 children and mother
5. a popcorn bowl and several bags of microwave popcorn
6. a cloth napkin and a real fork
7. a real wine glass and cork screw
8. a scissors and scotch tape.
9. speakers to attach to my computer
10. clean wash cloths
11. a white noise generator
12. a hair straightener to keep my bangs straight
13. a plastic bag with band-aids, hair ties and Emory boards
14. a couple of cans of soup and a can opener

box2Add my cell phone and my laptop to the list and this was everything but my clothes and wallet that I needed to survive. It is accurate to add that the phone and computer provided favorite music, contact with those I love, and entertainment, making them my two most valuable possessions.

Okay …. so it looks like the real me is a lot about eating, drinking and getting a good night’s sleep. And while Ford Perfect traveled the galaxy armed only with his trusty towel, it looks like I prefer cloth napkins and washcloths. To each their own. Could I have gotten by without my box of precious belongings? Of course I could have. Did I need much more? Not really. At least not for only fifty-five days.