Back to the Nest

Last weekend I rode Amtrak’s California Zephyr across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the decommissioning ceremony of the lovely hilltop campus of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where I studied many years ago.  In the end, I earned an M.A. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, not an M. Div from PLTS. But the time I spent in and around PLTS was formative in my life and in my imagination.
I remember days when  silent fog enveloped the campus and ice water trickled down the trees in this holy hill.  There are three towering redwoods planted here almost six decades ago by eminent Lutherans.  These redwoods were taller than I remembered: now, they tower.
One of three redwoods
“Planted by Hanns Lilje 1959”
With a welter of buildings and a lot of grounds, the campus had high maintenance costs and a decreased number of students studying for the ministry.  A move downhill had been discussed for years. The decommissioning was bittersweet for everyone – current students, long-absent alums, staff, faculty, and Board members.  It was wonderful to walk one last time the shaded paths between the buildings, to worship in the chapel where so many seminarians learned how to do liturgy.  On the other hand, knowing it was the end of an era and that this spectacular location was going to to be forever lost to us cast a somber shade over the day.
Me looking out over the San Francisco Bay from the tower in Sawyer Hall.
Following the last worship service in the PLTS chapel, the altar was stripped and the school banner, processional cross, and other liturgical items carried by hand to the new PLTS downtown Berkeley campus – a downhill walk of 3.7 miles, less than that for some of us who set out later but caught up by the expedient of going straight down incredibly steep Marin Avenue.  The procession looped along a less steep way lest anybody trip and arrive too soon downhill!
The procession in the Berkeley Hills
Procession in downtown Berkeley
The Seminary is now housed on the second floor of an up-to-date office building in downtown Berkeley across the street from City Hall.  Here it is near the center of gravity of the Graduate Theological Union consortium of seminaries, and close to urban challenges and opportunities and the front lines of social justice.  The new space has been thoughtfully designed and appointed.
New multi-use space for worship, lectures or receptions
Encountering the new space after, we found each office and functional space, including the sacristy, the kitchen, the fire escape stairs, and a window facing City Hall, adorned with a heartfelt and quirky blessing.  Like this one:
Areas of Potential Protest
Oh God of all activity,
bless those citizens
     who exercise their rights of free speech
      by protesting around city hall.
May they be as peaceful as possible
and may law enforcement officials
     be as expeditious and as prudent as possible
     in the carrying out of their duties.
 Oh, and protect the glass windows of this building
     and other adjacent buildings.
Amen.

Pets From Space

Pets in Space!  Science fiction—so far.  Someday. . . .

But how about pets FROM space?  Not fiction, but historical fact.

In August, 1960, two dogs, Belka and Strelka, were launched into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 5.  They were the first animals to successfully orbit the Earth and survive their adventures.  They did more than merely survive:  Strelka (the name translates to “Little Arrow”) later gave birth to five puppies.

The successful space flight of Belka and Strelka did more than enable Strelka to start a family; the two dogs also served as tangible—indeed, pettable—evidence of Soviet superiority in developing space technology.  In fact, it was the event that motivated President John F. Kennedy to commit to sending human beings to the Earth’s Moon by the end of the decade.  (Kennedy made his announcement on the Rice University campus, my alma mater and just a few blocks from where I am right now.)

At a state dinner in Vienna, early in June, 1961, Jackie Kennedy, seated next to Nikita Khrushchev and at a loss for innocuous dinner-table subjects, thought to ask about Strelka and her puppies.  Some time later, a mysterious package arrived at the White House.  Inside was one of the litter—a puppy, Pushinka.

Pushinka was cute and fluffy, but that only made sense:  the name Pushinka actually translates to “Fluffy.”

In October 1962 the world held its breath as what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.  Nuclear war was averted, and the personal relationship between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev is often credited with making this possible.  Perhaps, too, the world’s first Pet FROM Space had a paw in this.

We’ll never know, but we can wonder.

In this photo, Pushinka in the middle is flanked by parents Strelka (left) and Pushok (right).

Pushinka thrived in White House care and eventually gave birth to her own litter, which JFK referred to as “pupniks.”


 

Pets in Space 2

There’s going to be another anthology of science fiction romance with cute, helpful and/or valiant pets!  The authors in Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 are S.E. Smith, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley, Jessica E. Subject, Carol Van Natta, and me.

Our Island Home

When I write speculative fiction, I do a lot of world-building. I imagine a fictional world in sufficient detail and logically consistent enough to potentially exist—and sound plausible to knowledgeable readers. (I have to do the same thing with the contours of the human heart; our shared, different-but-alike internal landscapes must be recreated in a way that always rings true.)

When building worlds, for my jumping-off place I start with the world we all share: the beautiful blue oasis we sometimes call Earth, sometimes call Terra—and always call “home.”

The image below shows a part of the world familiar to transatlantic airline pilots. You can spot the lights of Goose Bay, where an airport large enough to land an airliner serves as a sort of emergency “what-if” option for flight planning.

In the lower right portion of the image you see the white ring that marks the perimeter of the Manicouagan Crater, a meteor crater fully 70 kilometers in diameter. In wintertime it’s covered with frozen water, making it so striking and so readily visible even from orbit.

And the aurora borealis crowns the Earth with fire.

Auroras figure into my Aeon’s Legacy series – in the novel Hurricane Moon, in which an aurora on the colony world Green is injected with the ashes of dead starfarers, adding colors to create a luminous memorial; and in Star Crossing, in which the auroras of Green are transformed into a generator for a radio message across the stars.

And a meteor crater in Canada figures significantly into my novelette “The Vigilant Ones.”

This photo, courtesy NASA, was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on February 3, 2012.

THE TIDE

This excellent book adroitly weaves together  the scientific understanding of tides, the role of tides in history and literature, and the author’s own encounters with tides. And Aldersey-Williams writes so well that his meticulous account of spending a solid day on bit of shoreline near his home in England, watching the tide go and come, is page-turningly interesting!

THE TIDE was published by Viking in 2016.

Among the interesting scientific angles is that Earth’s tides likely had much to do with the evolution of life on Earth, including stabilizing the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which limited evolved life’s exposure to climatic extremes. In looking for life on other worlds, we may need to focus on exoplanets with moons.  This idea played into my science fiction novel Hurricane Moon, in which a star colonization mission seeks (and at first fails to find) a world with a large moon.

THE TIDE starts with an epigram that quoted John Steinbeck in The Log of the Sea of Cortez:  “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

 

Enchanted Rock

Brilliant red Indian paintbrush wildflowers below the Enchanted Rock batholith
Indian paintbrush below Enchanted Rock

In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas.  I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.

Alexis wearing backpack
Me and my backpack

When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.

We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep.  My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree.  Problem solved.  I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.

And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.

At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape.  We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith.  From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country.  After that we hiked around the Rock.

Eroded granite menhirs framed by aloe plant in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, TX
Rock formations near the trail around Enchanted Rock

After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs.  It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.

The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails.  He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.

Alexis looking back over her shoulder from her seat on a railroad motor car
All aboard!

It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!

Return to Flight

Finally the stars aligned for me to regain my currency as a sailplane pilot.  The weather, the gliderport runway conditions, the two-seat sailplane and the instructor all became suitable or available at the same time!

While flying with an instructor at the start of a new season or after a long layoff isn’t really mandatory, it IS a good practice.  In this case, I took advantage of the excellent instruction provided by CFIG Keith Miller and under his watchful eye performed two complete flights and one simulated emergency:  a “rope break” at low altitude, necessitating an immediate return to the runway.

It was a good workout and Blanik 5 (a Czech-made Super Blanik L-23 trainer) is a good ship.

 

Seen from the flight line, this is SCOH’s L-23 “Blanik 5” on final approach.

Under Construction

I am in the process of renovating – and combining – my Website and my blog, incrementally and with the much appreciated skill set of WordPress consultant Chris Merle.  Results will gradually become apparent!

"underconstruction" graphic
© Marinv | Dreamstime.com – Under Construction Blueprint, Technical Drawing Photo

Sign for the Times

A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument.  This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning.  So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park.  The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.

This spirited artwork caught my attention.

wishing-well decorated with flowers and Day of the Dead skull art

How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.

All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.

This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.

 

Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love