All posts by alexis

Home Sweet Houston

This just got painted on an apartment complex down the street.  The place was hit hard in Hurricane Harvey, and so was my own condo complex (where I luckily live on the 3rd floor, above the flood although I lost my car.) But we’ve come back.

"Home Sweet Houston" painted on the side wall of an apartment complex

My sentiments exactly.

Lenten Sacrifice

 

Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. … I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

A quarter century ago Peter Menzel published his remarkable book, Material World.  Subtitled A Global Family Portrait, it portrayed statistically average families representing thirty nations.  The most memorable feature of the book was a series of photographs of each family’s worldly goods:  they’d emptied their homes for the photographers and deposited all of their material possessions in front of the homes so that these fascinating collections, meager or extensive, could be photographed.

Think of all of the objects you have in your home.  Almost  every one of those items arrived with the promise that it would in some way make your life richer, fuller, better.

And almost without exception, every one of these items ended up with you taking care of it:  you have to wash it, wax it, renew its registration, dust it, change its oil or its batteries, update its software, or otherwise service it in some way.  Possessions we acquired to make our lives better now possess us instead.

It is the season of Lent when many liturgical Christians give something up.  I once worked with a woman who faithfully gave up chocolate for Lent every year.  A friend of mine – a Lutheran minister – gives up Facebook  for Lent.  Imagine that – more time to interact with flesh and blood friends and family in person!  (Wasn’t Facebook’s original premise that it would help us stay connected?)

It occurs to me that giving up whatever promised to make our lives better, but doesn’t serves us as intended, is worth doing. For example:  fear’s original purpose was to help us human beings survive in a dangerous world.  But some fears we may own now are, like snowmobiles and salad shooters, far more trouble than they’re worth. What if we gave up some of our fears for Lent?

Suppose we gave up our fear of being found out for who we really are?  The fear of being different,  unlovable, hopelessly inadequate, or too strange for anyone to like us? Jesus emphatically said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meaning we are worth being loved by ourselves. And what if we gave up our fear of our neighbor? You know, the one whose skin color, foreign origins, socio-economic class, politics, or sexuality prompts useless, burdensome fear.

We might find that once Lent is over we don’t need to resume these fears. Or at least that they wouldn’t stick to us quite as stubbornly after Easter Sunday.

Today, April 11, is the twelfth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.

THE WHOLE STORY OF CLIMATE

 

This is a remarkable book with lucid, approachable geological science. It’s written in a way that shows the author’s passion for geology and for teaching. She also folds in memorable vignettes about the lives of figures whose discoveries paved the way to what we know now about climate science. This is a very, very good read, and equally thought-provoking.   It methodically builds a case that the Earth’s climate is more unstable than we knew:  it can – and has, in historical eras  – drastically changed in less than a lifetime.  

Highly recommended.

SHAPESHIFTERS

Following the example of a professor who always finds really interesting nonfiction books in the Rice University library, and who checked this book back in, I just read Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis, MD. I’m glad I did. This book is an expertly guided tour of how the human body is fundamentally changeable through both natural development and different diseases. Dr. Francis tells these medical tales with fascination, compassion, and strong, clear, evocative writing. This is highly recommended reading for writers of science fiction, fantasy and mystery – there’s so much good material here!

A Moon for Us All

On the night of the blood wolf moon, I stayed up late enough to watch the total lunar eclipse.

It was a clear cold night, as close as we get in Houston to the crisp winter nights elsewhere in the country and the world.

Red Lunar eclipse
A blood-red lunar eclipse. (This is actually an eclipse from last year, photographed in Italy by Giuseppe Donatiello and released to the public domain.)

I walked out and sat on a wrought iron bench close to my condo. It did my heart good to see how many neighbors had also come on out to watch the eclipse. I even noticed a telescope on a balcony.

It seems humankind still yearns for a connection with the heavens. The urge to look into the night sky and to wonder about the cosmos, and about our place in it, is well-nigh universal. I hope that urge never goes away.

Tonight’s was the second of five eclipses forecast for 2019. The first was a partial solar eclipse visible from China about two weeks ago. This was fitting; at almost the same time as that eclipse, the Chinese lander Chang’e 4 successfully touched down on the mysterious far side of the moon.

On board the lander was a science experiment that germinated a seed on the surface of the moon, albeit in a self-contained bubble. The seed sprouted, a tiny leaf dared poke its head toward the same Sun on which we all depend.

The sprout withered and died during the long lunar night, but even so, there was something achingly universal about the plant and its brief but pioneering life: the seed was a cotton seed.

What’s special and universal about cotton? According to the cotton growers’ trade group, on every single day, at some point every human being alive comes in contact with cotton.

And so, as I and my neighbors gazed at the blood-red moon, and as our more distant neighbors across the Americas did the same, most of us with cotton something against our skin, we were watching the only other body in the universe known to have cotton.

In what other unexpected ways are our lives woven together? How many other ways are we connected to each other, and to the physical world which clothes and nourishes not only our bodies, but also our spirits?


The Spirit of Giving

Here in the United States we’re deep in the holiday season—and that means relentless advertising. Shopping malls ring with the sounds of Christmas carols, and “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward men” is conflated with the strident message that the best way to express this goodwill is to buy lots of stuff. 

Bah humbug?

It’s easy to become cynical about the commercialization of our best impulses  to imagine that no shred of altruism motivates the arch-capitalists who’ve made life so frantic for so many. But just because it’s easy to understand things that way doesn’t make it so.

In 1912, in an Appalachian mining camp, a gas-fired kitchen stove exploded without warning. The accident horribly burned the hapless chef, an off-duty nurse who worked in the company hospital caring for sick or injured miners. Gangrene set in and it seemed almost inevitable that Pearl Gossett would die. Her only hope was that enough volunteers would agree to provide a square inch or two of their own skin to temporarily replace part of hers. Pearl’s injuries were extensive enough to require a total of forty or fifty square inches.

Neither miners nor hospital workers would volunteer to help play even a small part to save Pearl’s life. Finally, as she lay near death, an unlikely hero appeared. A part-time nurse chanced to hear about the accident from the doctor who’d been working desperately, but fruitlessly, to round up donors. The part-time nurse didn’t know Pearl, had never met her, but volunteered to undergo the painful operation and even more agonizing recuperation—and to provide the entire graft all by himself!

The doctor was shocked. Forty or fifty square inches—all from one donor?

Yes, the part-time nurse said, and asked how soon the graft was needed. As soon as possible, replied the doctor. The part-time nurse said he was ready. The doctor hesitated: just one donor? Was he sure? This was going to be painful and risky; was there any next-of-kin to notify? Never mind that, said the donor, just do it. Now.

The operation took place later that day and was worse than the doctor had feared; that night a total of seventy-two square inches of skin was harvested from the part-time nurse’s thighs. The donor spent weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds. But to survive, Pearl Gossett needed yet more skin. Not yet fully healed from the first operation, the part-time nurse immediately agreed to start the entire ordeal all over again.  

Another fifty square inches of skin were harvested, this time from his back. He spent three more painful months in the hospital—all to save the life of a woman he’d never met.

He finally emerged from the hospital, penniless and out of work, just in time to celebrate Christmas, 1912.  He wore the scars for the rest of his life, but because they were normally hidden under his clothes, none were the wiser; the part-time nurse never talked about his selfless act. 

After a series of misadventures he later moved to Boston and opened, of all things, an investment firm trading in postal International Reply Coupons. Traded in bulk, these coupons could be exchanged at a profit in much the way currency traders make money today by following the vagaries of fluctuating exchange rates. The former nurse quickly made a fortune for himself and many fortunes for his clients.

A competitor not only entered the market but even opened offices on the same floor of the same building as the nurse-turned-trader’s office. The new entrant advertised guaranteed high returns, forcing the former nurse to make the same claim. All went well for a while, then the market tightened and investors became more skittish.  Some of them demanded their money back, with earnings, and within weeks the nurse’s business failed. In an effort to keep the business going as it passed through what he’d taken for a brief rough path, the nurse turned wheeler-dealer had resorted to paying off those investors who’d demanded their money back with funds deposited by subsequent investors. For this expedient he was tried, convicted, imprisoned, stripped of his assets, and disgraced. The final ignominy: never a US citizen, after finally managing to pay off his creditors and completing his prison term, onetime nurse Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi was deported to Italy.

As we wade through throngs of frantic holiday shoppers, our “goodwill toward men” perhaps wearing a bit thin in spots, let us remember there are some gifts that truly are precious, and that they’re rarely available in shopping malls.  Let’s reflect that there may be everyday heroes in our midst.  And remember that we’re never going to be able to predict just  who may be one of these everyday heroes. Therefore each of the human beings around us deserves to be treated as potentially harboring that selfless spark.

Let’s reflect that the infamous  Charles Ponzi, namesake and and perpetrator one hundred years ago this Christmas of  the original “Ponzi” scheme, of the goodness of his heart once spent four agonizing months to save the life of a woman he’d never met.

Peace on Earth to people of good will. 

Location, location, location

Realtors are fond of the mantra, “Location, location, location.” They mean the additional attractiveness and value a home can have due solely to its location.

Often this extraordinary value can be traced to the commanding views that can be admired from the windows of the home.  Indeed.

Few homes can match the view from this window:

International Space Station view
Photo credit NASA

You’re looking at an autonomous Cygnus cargo ship parked on the driveway of the International Space Station and viewed through the kitchen window with the gemlike blue Earth in the background.  Just in time for Thanksgiving, the Cygnus arrived bearing nearly three tons of groceries and other household necessities.  It will remain docked to the ISS until February when it will depart on another errand:  delivering a clutch of cubesats to their prescribed orbits.

Reflect on this:  the earliest portions of the International Space Station has been in orbit now for twenty years.  As Kamakshi Ayyar recently wrote in Time magazine,

” . . . we are now in an age where people who reached adulthood this month haven’t lived a single day without there being a human in space.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the International Space Station is the fact that it’s no longer remarkable.

Or, yet and still, isn’t it, though?

Earthrise

Recently the short documentary Earthrise was posted on Youtube.  It’s an exploration of the emotional impact on the first humans to ever see their—our—lovely world in the rear view mirror.

The crew of Apollo 8 journeyed to the far side of the moon and back.  They became the first in human history to go far enough from the good Earth to see it dwindle into a blue marble.  Curiously, there had been no advance recognition of the emotional impact of seeing what may be the most hospitable place in all of Creation from a distance,.

The Apollo 8 mission is today remembered for the iconic photo of a crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon.  In photographic terms, however, what was to be one of the most reproduced images in all of humankind’s history was a “grab shot”:  William Anders had been recording lunar craters on black and white film when suddenly  Earth rose above the bleak horizon.  He asked for a roll of color film—tossed to him, in zero gee—and caught the image in the nick of time, because nobody who’d planned the mission had anticipated the wonder of this.

In Anders words, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Mission Commander Frank Borman’s take was equally poignant:  rather than astronauts, he said, we “should have sent poets.”   Poets, as well as visual artists and writers can with capture how the wonder of the universe intersects the human spirit.

The wonder of Creation, the incomparable value of our home planet, and what it means to be human:  these are some of the reasons I write science fiction.  Maybe these are some of reasons you read science fiction, too.

 

 

Writing a Caticorn – Guest Post by Pauline Baird Jones

Once again this year I’m delighted to be a part of the science fiction romance anthology Pets in Space.  In this guest post, fellow Embrace the Passion:  Pets in Space 3  author Pauline Baird Jones talks about she invented her pet.

 

One of the hardest (for me) parts when starting a new Pets in Space story is picking a pet. You’d think I was picking a real pet, not a fictional one. For the past two anthologies, I’ve picked the pet and then they drove the story and revealed to me the human they owned and sometimes they told me bits of the story.

They were quite helpful, though there were times I wondered what the pet had been drinking. lol

So this year I decided to be more organized about this pet selection process. I made a list of animals that caught my eye (mostly on my Facebook feed scrolling by) and then I tried to winnow it down. Here’s my “short list” for Pets in Space 3:

Pandas

Harpy Eagle

Turtle

Hedgehog

Flying Squirrel

Blue-footed booby

Boa

Cat

Dog

White mice

Gerbil

Hamster

So which of these animals did I pick for Embrace the Passion: Pets in Space 3?

Well…kind of none of the above. Lol!

I created a caticorn—a combo cat with a small horse body and a single horn in its forehead.

So technically I picked a cat and then did some fictional genetic engineering. (Don’t feel bad for the pets not picked. Somehow most of them managed to force their way into the story in other ways.)

I did have good reasons for going with a caticorn.

I needed a pet that would help, but not be high maintenance for my heroine.

And I needed a pet with secrets. Let’s face it, cats always look like they are keeping secrets—when they aren’t giving you the Puss’n Boots “give me what I want” look.

And I needed a pet that could sneak on board the ship, because the caticorn did not get an invite for this trip.

I did mention some other animals managed to push their way onboard my space ship, didn’t I? Here’s a little snippet from Operation Ark:

***

The Emissary’s capabilities had tipped the scales on the mission from bat crap crazy to this might work. City had volunteered without hesitation. She’d worked with Kraye and Bull. Kraye was good in a fire fight, and Bull, well, he was a robot who had been designed as a super warrior—a super warrior with a flying squirrel for a pet, but still a robot with fighting creds.

She heard a plaintive half whinny, half meow.

“There you are.” She made the mistake of meeting his big, ‘I feel so neglected’ gaze. With a resigned sigh, she knelt down and ran a hand down his back. It arched like a cat’s and he purred when she scratched around his ears and horn. “You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

The purring increased, and she sighed again. A Marine was not supposed to be owned by a cat, even if it was a caticorn.

“Good thing I got your dietary needs programmed into the system.”

Tiger angled his head, his gaze meeting hers. The look was odd enough to make her wonder—but the Puss’n’Boots look came back. She felt its power, but let Tiger see her skepticism. At least she didn’t have to worry about his claws in her back. It didn’t seem like it should be possible for Tiger to increase the soulful, but he managed it. She chuckled, moving her fingers around so she could scratch his chin. “You win.” She said the words, not sure what he’d won, and she’d lost. It all felt a bit paranoid. Though a little paranoia never hurt anyone in a galaxy far, far away.

***

Rocky the flying squirrel is a pretty awesome buddy for Bull but you’ll need to order the book to find out which other animals found their way into my story “Operation Ark.”

And here’s the blurb for “Operation Ark”:

She’s a USMC Sergeant deployed to the Garradian Galaxy.

He was raised by the robots who freed him from slavery.

It’s a match made nowhere anyone can figure out.

They clashed as enemies but joined forces to defeat a common foe. Now they’re tasked with returning some freed prisoners to their home worlds. In the next galaxy. With an alien, a robot, and a caticorn. It was a bar joke without a punch line, though Carolina City has a feeling it is out there—like the truth.

Kraye isn’t eager to return to his galaxy where the dark secret of his past lays in wait, but he’s willing to risk it in hopes that Caro can teach him what the robots couldn’t: how to be human.

Together they must face a dangerous journey, a lethal enemy with a score to settle, their unexpected desire, and an uncertain future if they make it out alive.

Can Caro and Kraye navigate the minefields—both emotional and space based—to land a happy homecoming for the sentient animals in their care? Can the man raised by robots learn how to kiss the girl while the starchy Marine decides if she is willing to bend the rules for a happy ever after? Don’t miss Pauline Baird Jones’ newest Project Enterprise story!

Please join us for the next round of adventures with romance, danger and pets! All of it happening in space!

USA Today Bestselling author Pauline Baird Jones never liked reality, so she writes books. She likes to wander among the genres, rampaging like Godzilla, because she does love peril mixed in her romance.

 

 

 

The Blessing of the Animals

St Francis and animals

Yesterday my church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Houston, honored St. Francis of Assisi by blessing the animals.

Whether pets or predators, tame or wild, animals remind us – as St. Francis proclaimed but Western civilization too often denies – that we are not alone in creation. It isn’t us or them, isn’t us not them; it’s us and them in the fate of the Earth. 

So St. Stephen’s had much emphasis on ecology in the hymns and prayers, and many pets in attendance. Twenty or so dogs, two turtles, a lizard, and a cockatiel came to church. Our priest individually blessed each pet right in front of the altar. It was a surprisingly powerful ritual. People love their pets. And everyone needed hope and healing after the news that filled the national media last week.

Pets can be incredibly empathetic when humans are hurt, sick, or sad. One of the dogs was a trained therapy dog. Therapy animals mean so much to students in finals, the elderly in assisted living and nursing homes, and other places. My friend Lila’s PTSD therapy dog, Rinnie, makes all the difference in the world for Lila. 

Rinnie

Ritually and intentionally blessing our pets once a year in church reminds us of how we are blessed by them

As a writer of science fiction with real science in it, it’s a little out of character for me to have stories in the Pets in Space Science Fiction Romance anthology (2016 – 2018). But so far, just about every author’s Pets in Space tale has –  amid adventure and mayhem, with sex ranging from hinted to hot, and without using these exact words – shown pets being blessings to people. One reviewer was bitterly disappointed that there was no sex with pets (!) but that isn’t what we’re about. It’s pets rescuing, finding, helping, defending, matchmaking, and making a happy ending. 

That’s a good thing kind of story to write. I’m happy to have a story in Pets in Space:  Embrace the Passion!

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St. Francis sketch credit <a href=”https://clipartxtras.com/”>clipartxtras.com</a>