Thursday, January 21, 2016

Star Wars!

If you click on  Star Wars  you'll hear John Williams' iconic Star Wars theme music.


You can hook up to some really powerful speakers, turn the lights off, cross your hands over your heart, and feel the music reverberating against against your chest. If you're old enough you'll instantly be transported to a simpler time. A time before 3D as we know it today. To a time before IMAX. To a time before $15 movie tickets.

A time before Han Solo and I had grown children.

I particularly remember going to see Star Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back (You know, that's the one where Han got frozen in some kind of something-or-other and we had to wait three years to see him safely thawed out.)

A group of us single moms took our children to the local drive-in movie theater. My son was six years old. We took two cars. I parked my station wagon in the slot backwards, opened the back hatch door, spread blankets and pillows, and filled it with kids. One of the mothers brought a grocery bag filled with popcorn and another shared red Kool Aid all around.

Us moms got into a sedan parked in the next slot and poured wine. It was a wonderful evening. We were in no way constrained by our children's presence. We whooped and hollered, honked the horn, and flashed the headlights at all the appropriate places in the film, and our children could pretend they didn't know us.

The Empire was defeated lo these many years ago, and both it's death stars destroyed. But each generation brings new tyrannies that must be vanquished -- even in galaxies far, far away.

Fast forward to 2016. My husband and daughter and I went to see the newest iteration of Star Wars in 3D. In a fine, indoor IMAX theater with comfy seats and a well-behaved audience.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens opens on Jakku, a desert planet. I know, I know. A little deja vu. But it's not Tatooine, though there is an old guy Lor San Tekka played by Max Von Sydow who reminds us of Obi-Wan. Tekka gives the ace x-wing fighter pilot Poe a secret map to find Luke Skywalker. Poe gives his droid BB8 the map for safe keeping when Storm Troopers arrive and take him captive.

Oh, did I say? The whole point of the movie may be brilliant special effects -- loud explosions, fiery crashes, electrifying chases through barren desert landscapes and lush rain forests, and light saber duels amidst noise and confusion and imminent death.

But the plot is the search for Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi Knights. Actually we are being introduced to the characters who will carry the story through the next two movies. And, for the most part the new characters are worth our being introduced to.

BB8 is a charming little droid that rolls its way in, around, and through the movie. By-the-bye, it's real self was built by Sphero, a start up toy company right here in Colorado. And they are the manufacturers of the toy that is now available for purchase, if you have $150 you really need to spend.

Rey, a self-sufficient young woman abandoned on Jakku, makes her own way through wit, courage, and action. She is a loner, depending on no one, caring for no one, and trusting no one. Until --

Until she reluctantly takes on the care and protection of BB8. And meets Finn.

Finn, a Storm Trooper, finds himself unable to do the despicable things he was raised and trained to do. Without giving away all the excitement -- he ends up working with Rey and BB8 to help The Resistance find Skywalker.

Of course there's Princess Leia, now a general in The Resistance. And Han Solo. (When did Han and I get so old?) And Chewy. He's still kind of threatening looking but cuddly underneath it all. (I used to have a big old hairy dog a lot like that.)

Kylo Ren is the new bad guy and I think he'll be sufficiently scary as he matures. He is, after all Darth Vader's grandson.

General Hux doesn't cut it for me as the Commander of the First Order's Starkiller Base. (This movie's answer to the other two Death Stars.) He's just not 'hard' enough looking. He does things that are quite mean, but somehow it just doesn't ring true for me.

And Supreme Leader Snoke is too Wizard of Ozish.

I didn't fall asleep in the movie until near the end. But, my daughter was with my husband and me and her purpose in life is to punch me in the ribs when I fall asleep in movie theaters. So her raison d'etre was justified.

I did see the very end which summed up the movie perfectly -- The torch is passed.

I think Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is worthy of whooping and hollering, honking and headlight flashing. And I'm looking forward to Star Wars VIII. Maybe some day they'll bring back drive-in movies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Downton Abbey Redeemed

It's Wednesday. I'm having leftovers from our favorite Mexican restaurant, a nice glass of Lambrusco, and streaming the most recent episode of Downton Abbey which aired last Sunday evening. I was too tired and fell asleep very early on so streamed it today from PBS.

Or, at least, attempted to stream it. It didn't work well -- constantly buffering and beginning again at a commercial.

I don't understand. We can stream Netflix seamlessly. And it has no commercials, much less the same commercial to sit through umpteen times.

Well, I finally made it through with a minimum of expletives that needed deleting.

And I am well pleased with this episode. The first two were somehow unsatisfying. It was like they were just preparing for the real Season 6 to start. Housekeeping, perhaps, so we'd be ready for the final season.

With this the third episode, I feel like the new season has well and truly and finally begun. And I like it.

A bit of fireworks from the grande dames; typical high-handedness from Lady Mary; atypical success for Edith; hope for the Bates's future; a wedding to bring a smile and a tear; and Barrow, alas, poor Barrow.

YES! Downton Abbey is back. And I'll take a nap next Sunday afternoon so I'll be rested enough to watch Episode 4 while it's being aired.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Libraries, Who Needs 'em?

image from The Earth Story's Facebook Page

These are books. Very old books from a library in Timbuktu, a city in Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. This photo and the accompanying article are from a page I follow on Facebook.

In 2012 Islamic extremists backed by al-Qaida took over the city of Timbuktu. They began a pogrom against people and thoughts that differed from their own, in this case specifically against the Sufi branch of Islam. They meant to eradicate not only the public exercise of Sufi traditions, but Sufi thought as well. To that end, they set out to destroy mausoleums, mosques, and the library.

Timbuktu's library contained thousands of books, ranging far beyond Sufi religious scholarship. Many were from the founding of Timbuktu's university in 989 CE. The library had survived centuries of comings and goings of controlling forces, up to and including French colonization from 1893 to 1960. Always adding to its collection.

Thanks to the courage of a group of people who understood the value of preserving these books, the books were smuggled out of the city and are being stored in safer areas until they can be restored.

For a more complete story about this click on Endangered library.

I have a cyber friend who lives in Scotland. She's a retired librarian and an active traveler and blogger. ( She recently blogged about libraries in England being closed because the economy there is on a downturn and public funding is tight. That got me to thinking.

I'm from Oklahoma so I know a little something about the vagaries of economies and public funding. Oklahoma is an oil producing state, so when oil is up, Oklahoma booms. People buy jewelry, hire interior decorators, and travel the world in style. When oil is down, as it is right now, pawn shops do well and interior decorators tighten their belts. People go to Vegas in economy class and Oklahoma holds its breath.

Oklahoma does its public libraries on a county basis, meaning that the libraries are maintained by county governments. The local public library has always been an important part of my life. Saturdays were for grocery shopping and going to the library -- gathering sustenance for the week ahead. And sometimes going to the movies.

When I worked at the Edmond Public Library, Oklahoma was in an economic state of equilibrium, not the best of times and not the worst of times. The Edmond Public Library is part of Oklahoma County's Metropolitan Library System which has satellite libraries scattered throughout the county. Not all of the satellites are open every day of the week. And not all have extensive collections in-house, but you can check out any book available in any of the public libraries in Oklahoma County and have it there within two or three days. Or you can check them out on-line and pick them up at your local library.

If the book is not available from MLS, they will help you do an inter-library loan. That means they can find the book (or documents) you want wherever it might be in the U.S., even in college collections, and have it for you in a couple of weeks.

When I worked there, the Edmond library circulated more items than any other library in the state, public or private. And we were busy from opening to closing.

People used the computers to search for jobs or to do research for the jobs they already had. They met in the library to quilt with their friends, to listen to representatives of government agencies explain programs and regulations. They attended book signings with their favorite authors and got help filing their income tax returns. There were Story Times for children and Read to a Dog sessions for young readers. (Dogs listen patiently and don't rush or correct a reader.)

Religious groups, political groups, hobby groups -- anyone could book a meeting room there whether they were politically correct or not so long as they didn't DO anything illegal or disruptive while in the library.

Personal privacy was strictly protected. All record of what you checked out of the library was deleted from any records connecting to your name when the item was checked back in. If it was checked in, no one could track your reading interests. Not the government, not your employer, not your insurance company, and not even your mother.

And we had everything from Manga to classical music CDs, magazines, newspapers, and of course books. Books about everything in the universe and by almost anyone who'd ever been published. And in other languages. And E-books complete with an e-reader if you didn't have your own. Yes, and even items about things that you might not want your mother to know you were interested in.

Research librarians didn't just sit at their desks and point you to the stacks. They were actually qualified to and enthusiastic about helping you find the information you wanted.

Libraries are our passport to the world, to the past, to the future. And public libraries make that passport available to us all whether or not we can afford to buy books or pay a monthly internet bill.

The First Amendment to the American Constitution protects freedom of religion, free speech (which includes the written word,) freedom of the press, freedom of peaceable assembly, and the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Public libraries give us access to learn about all these things we have the constitutional rights to do. And a safe place to do them all.

Sometimes the library is the only place to go for peace and quiet when your house is chaos and you just want to read the local paper or the New Orleans Times Picayune or maybe just take a little nap.

To endure, a free and democratic nation needs a well-informed electorate. Libraries provide access to information for us all.

Who needs a library? We do.

Support your local library.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Pluto Files -- a review

See all those pink Post-Its? They mark things I wanted to quote in this review; new bits of information I wanted to remember; funny things he said that I wanted to tell somebody -- my husband, my daughter, anybody who'd listen.

Too many, too many.

In The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the history of not just Pluto but of our understanding of our solar system.

He explores America's proprietary attitude toward Pluto. Pluto has always been practically an American planet. It was, after all, discovered by an American and made famous as Mickey Mouse's best friend. How more American could it be? How could it be demoted from its planet status by a bunch of mere scientists?

Tyson recounts his own part in that demotion. The decision to exclude Pluto from the new Rose Center's exhibit of Solar System planets was made in order to save money should discussions, then ongoing in the world of cosmology, redefine 'planet' making Pluto no longer a planet and instantly rendering the exhibit wrong. 

Not because he led the anti-Pluto-as-a-planet movement, but because he was Director of the Hayden Planetarium and he had tacitly accepted the role of astrophysics-interpreter-in-chief, he was the lightning rod. He drew the fury of the American Press and school children from across the country, incensed and offended that their planet was no longer officially considered a planet. 

Third grade teachers throughout the nation recognized a teaching moment. 

And suddenly, Tyson (not the boxer) was a household name. Not, in my opinion, a bad thing. Anything that focuses America on something scientific rather than sports has got to be good -- any publicity is good, right? Even bad publicity. Or detestations from third graders.

And it wasn't just children. Songs were written. Editorial cartoons were published. Comedians had fodder. And other scientists, even astrophysicists, took professional exception.

There were debates. According to Tyson's accounts these debates were every bit as passionate and acrimonious as the current crop of political debates, complete with verbal fireworks. (Though I don't think birther considerations came into any of them.)

The International Astronomical Union did not define 'planet' until 2006. The same year the other Tyson retired from boxing and six years after the Rose Center opened setting off the Pluto-as-a-Planet controversy.  

But more seriously, how can it be that physicists come so late to the method of taxonomy long employed by biologists? Tyson does not explain that, but he does explore the current modes of organizing the celestial bodies by their physical properties.

As the brouhaha subsided, the letters from children changed. This letter Tyson received from 8-year-old Siddiq summed it up. "We just have to get over it. That's Science."

As all good scientist should do, indeed sensible humans of any stripe should do with any of our life questions, Tyson leaves open the possibilities of new information changing our closely held views of reality. Again.

To give Pluto the last word, Tyson shares how political cartoonist Aislin in the Montreal Gazette imagines Pluto's concern with all things human: 

Probably the best news for me is Tyson identifies Ceres as a Dwarf Planet. It was the largest of the asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt when I first started writing Murder on Ceres. A novel my husband describes as science fiction for people who like murder mysteries and a murder mystery for people who like science fiction. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Almost Seven -- Poetry

Something about David Bowie's death got to me. Maybe it's because he never seemed old to me. And only old people die. Right? Here I go waxing nostalgic. Here's a poem from Three Part Harmony, a chatbook I published many years ago with two poet friends.

From when my son was    

Almost Seven

legs growin'
Momma raised seat on bike
lowered hem on pants
come to shoulder on 
Great Grandmother she
makes things in clay
plays dominoes
likes me
knows I'm almost seven.

arms gettin' strong
Father takes me fishin'
fish with bow
catch gar some in
get brown like berry
look like I'm almost seven.

school startin'
go second grade
ride bus to Grandfather's he
let me dig potatoes
milk goats
drive tractor
cause I'm almost seven.

soon September
come birthday
then be
goin' on eight.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

video from Youtube

David Bowie has had so many faces I couldn't pick just one to go at the top of this post. It came down to the fact that a static photo would not do. No matter of him as which persona or in which costume or with which face.

'Space Oddity,' my favorite David Bowie song, was released as a single in July, 1969. The above video was made at the same time.

I was a young adult and the song captured my sense of being hurled into the unknown with no tangible life support. Instructions from Ground Control (advice from my society) seemed too conventional. Completely irrelevant to my own weightless, planetless state.

At the same time Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. He traveled through that weightless, planetless state to arrive safely on the moon and opened the entire universe to humanity. Me included.

Like Bowie, I tried on a vast array of personas. I used to think our wanderings were peculiar to the 60's generation. Not so. Just ask someone--anyone--from the generation who survived the Great Depression and World War II to today's Millennials who try to make sense of their world.

And here is where and who I am. I write about life in space. Murder on Ceres. I follow the International Space Station on Facebook. I celebrate each new step into space by many governments around the world and by as many private businesses. These things didn't exist in 1969.

Tomorrow is still unknowable and scary for all us Major Toms. And conventional wisdom still does not relate.

Bowie spoke for me and Neil Armstrong spoke to me. Now they're both gone. But I'm still here and as long as I am, I've got to be willing to make that leap. 

WE are still here and WE must be willing to make that leap.

video from YouTube
First space music video. Commander Chris Hadfield performed
'Space Oddity' on the International Space Station,
44 years after Bowie's original video.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Red Ink -- Passive Verbs

image from

William Bernhardt started me on the path to writing as craft. (He also ruined my enjoyment of using the exclamation point -- only one per novel -- which also restricts my ability to comment on Facebook posts.)

Bill admonishes us to "show, don't tell" and eschew the passive verb. Ernest Hemingway advised against adverbs, championing the mot juste, meaning the right verb needs no adverb.

Passive verbs and adverbs weaken a sentence and distance the reader from the vision we create. Let me show you. This is the opening from John Lescroart's first Dismas Hardy crime thriller Dead Irish.

     From his aisle seat, Dismas Hardy had a clear view of the stewardess as her feet lifted from the floor. She immediately let go of the tray -- the one that held Hardy's Coke -- although strangely it didn't drop, but hung there in the air, floating, the liquid coming out of the glass like a stain spreading in a blotter.

To rewrite this using active verbs and removing adverbs, it would look like this:

     From his aisle seat, Dismas Hardy saw the stewardess's feet lift from the floor. She let go of the tray -- the one that held Hardy's Coke. The drink didn't drop but hung there in the air, floating, the liquid coming out of the glass like a stain spreading in a blotter.

Nothing is lost from the meaning. The word 'strangely' is unnecessary because the Coke that Lescroart shows us floating is strange enough. We don't need to be told that it is strange with an adverb. (I also replaced the imprecise pronoun. And being an old poet, I enjoy the alliterative d's which are by their nature sudden, strong sounds, even if we read without moving our lips.)

In the heat of writing, it's hard to keep all the good advice in mind. My flash fiction blog Danger from earlier this week contains the following:

   Rain and wind were being sucked into the storm. Once outside the false harbor of my car, I could feel the storm's pull. It was too close.

Open plea to editors and beta readers: Please help us writers to avoid passive verbs. You don't have to figure out what we should say instead, just point out the problem. It may take a while, but we'll figure it out.

One final example from John Lescroart's Dead Irish:

   Moses had raised his younger sister from the time he was sixteen and she was four. When he'd gone to Vietnam, which was where Moses and Hardy had met, she had just been starting high school and Moses was paying to have her board at Dominican up in Marin County.

There you go. Something to be chewed upon. Blech!

Think I'll park my editor's cap and read the rest of John Lescroart's very good book. Good enough that this is my second time through. Alas, we always read faster than our favorite writers can write.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Danger -- Flash Fiction

image from

Lightning blazed across the sky silhouetting a wedge, black against the night. Transformers exploded marking its advance along the highway.

Thunder rolled toward me. Wave after wave. Rising and falling, then rising again. Each wave higher than the last, crashed around me. Vibrating against the car.

Ozone filled my nostrils. The smell of electrical fires. The smell of lightning.

Could I outrun the storm?

"A car is the most dangerous place to be in a tornado. Get out of the car." The whispered advice came from someone calmer than I. Someone from my childhood. "Better to lie in a ditch."

Rain and wind were being sucked into the storm. Once outside the false harbor of my car, I could feel the storm's pull. It was too close.

A rock outcropping rose from the wheat stubble on my left. Boulders, the size of barns, struck white by lightning then disappearing into black rain. Better than a ditch.

Miracle of miracles. A black hole a little more than waist-high opened into the rock. I was safe.

Safe from the storm but greeted by a low growl. Eyes reflected the flashing light from outside. Eyes in a face hidden in the dark. Maybe six feet away. It was hard to tell, but farther than arms length.

I looked away, back toward the mouth of the cave. The storm was on us. Debris churned past the opening. Rain and red dirt from the field boiled into the cave and I huddled against the stone wall.

Whatever the animal was, it was quiet. Like me, subdued by the storm raging outside. There was no place for either of us to go.

The storm passed as quickly as it had come. All was dark and still inside the cave. An eerie light, almost green, spread across the world outside.

I and my fellow refugee stayed quiet listening to the receding storm, our breathing matching perfectly. Inhale. Exhale.

Should I leave first? Or would that cause the animal to attack? The catch instinct. Or would it consider me a threat? And if it did, was there enough room for it to escape past me? Would it feel the need to fight its way out?

We had been safe from the storm, but were we safe from each other?

I backed out of the cave. Something brushed past me. One last flash of lightning showed a furry black and white animal, its fluffy tail held high as it ambled away, leaving just a whiff of its scent in the rain-fresh air.

And I fully understood just how much danger I'd been in.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Downton Abbey -- Spoiler alertssssss

image from

This photo is the first spoiler -- Lady Mary's riding astride!

I'd done reasonably well, waiting. But last night I was ready to strangle the PBS folk. At 7 p.m. my husband distracted me with Nova's Making North America: Human complete with geology, paleontology, anthropology -- all liberally sprinkled with scenes from my adopted home-state of Colorado. There was no way I could sit through 'Secrets of Chatsworth' when Downton was the only big English house I wanted to see.

And then, and then . . . there was an hour of anguish as some famous actress I'd never seen before showed clips from all the seasons of Downton and literally counted down the minutes to the first episode of the last season.

I've had TV series before that I could hardly wait for the next episode -- 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' 'Northern Exposure,' 'Boston Legal.'

And book series that sometimes required years of waiting for the next one -- Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time. (The latter involved my making threats against Brandon Sanderson's car tires. Though, to be fair, any poor soul who started reading Wheel at the beginning had to wait more than 22 years for the final volume to be published. Still, I did have to wait almost three years for A Memory of Light, the final volume in that 14-volume fantasy series.)

But I digress.

Two Hershey candy bars and countless complaints got me through that last hour. And we were away! A hunt with lots of dogs and horses coursing through the English countryside, after which my husband took his book and went to bed. He does like dogs and horses, but has little interest in the manners and mores of the English aristocracy.

Was it worth the wait?

This First Episode set the stage for the rest of Season Six. The cloud of Green's death was banished from Anna and Bates and now they can get on about their family plans. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, with a little help from our ever-practical Mrs. Patmore, can now get on with their plans. Edith is set on her future road. Earl Grantham saves Mary and proves himself more than just a man completely disassociated from reality.

And best of all, The Dowager Countess takes care of the trouble-making Miss Danker.

If you missed last night's First Episode of the Last Season, you can watch it online, just click here. And enjoy. It's all here -- the characters, the clothes, the posh houses, and lush English countryside all wrapped around intrigues and conflicts enough to make us forget this ridiculous American presidential campaign cycle. At least for one hour and seven minutes.

That's right, it started at 9:00 and lasted until seven minutes after 10:00. Had the news been on the same channel, it would have been delayed. How on earth did anyone come up with a TV episode time like that? Thank goodness for PBS. Only football gets to go over the hour.