Wildfire Journey, Part I

First came thunder and dry lightning. Such storms are rare in my area, due to the configuration of the mountains, but this one was extraordinary by any standards. The first storms hit early on August 16, with not dozens but thousands of lightning strikes (estimated 12,000 over 72-96 hours). 

We had watched the lightning for a few hours, flash after blinding flash, and commented that in his last years, our old German Shepherd Dog had become fearful of loud sounds like thunder and fireworks (we dealt with this by immediately getting out his all-time favorite toy and playing with him). Even though we knew of the danger of fires, somehow it didn’t connect. It should have. Over 500 wildfires sprang up in the next few hours, fanned by hot, dry winds. Soon we saw news stories of multiple fires in our county, Santa Cruz, and neighboring San Mateo, that were to merge into the #CZUAugustLightningComplex fire. 

The next day, the air was noticeably smokey, but we’d had smokey air before, from the Camp fire a couple of years ago, and others in Northern California. We kept an eye on the news but otherwise went about our business, mostly staying indoors. But as August 18 went on, the smoke thickened and the extent of the fire at Butano Park, northwest of us, expanded with terrifying rapidity, our mood went from watchful to alarmed. About dinner time, the smoke was as thick as San Francisco fog. 

“We should prepare to get out of here,” I told my family. “Just in case.” For months now, I’d been gathering materials on disaster preparedness, and had checklists and evacuation route maps in a folder on the kitchen counter. Now I got out those lists.

We each went about packing up suitcases, getting cat carriers ready, piling up our binder of important documents and insurance policies, getting out boxes of family photos. CPAPs, check. Jewelry, check. Prescription meds, check. And so forth.

The smoke got worse. The fire got closer. Big Basin State Park, that jewel of old growth coastal redwoods, was in flames. 

“We’re leaving,” I said, and called my dear friend and fellow writer in the East Bay. 

“Of course you can stay with us,” she said.

“But first,” I told my family, “we will have a good dinner.” As I’d planned, fajitas with squash from our garden. The hot, flavorful food strengthened us for what was to come.

We finished dinner, I loaded the dishwasher and set it to run, and then we loaded up the cars, locked the house, and drove off. As it was, our grown daughter and the cats had an offer of refuge south of Santa Cruz, so after some discussion, we decided to split the family. We stepped out of the house into a sea of billowing smoke.

The road into our little town was already filling up with outbound traffic. At the one and only stop sign in town, in front of the volunteer fire department, sheriffs were directing traffic south toward Santa Cruz. “Go, go, go!” the officer in the middle of the intersection shouted, waving cars through. I’d planned on going left, then along a twisty mountain road I knew well to the nearest highway, but followed the course of least trouble for everyone. It meant a somewhat longer drive for me to detour south, then east, then back north, but in the interest of keeping outgoing traffic flowing smoothly and not making more work for the folks who were trying to get us all out safely, I took it.

Shortly thereafter, while I was on the road, we all received reverse-911 texts of the mandatory evacuation orders. Continue reading “Wildfire Journey, Part I”

Gillian Polack Wins Ditmar for Best Novel

The Year of the Fruit CakeTreehouse writers are thrilled to report that fellow resident Gillian Polack won Australia science fiction’s 2020 Ditmar Award for best novel for The Year of the Fruit Cake. The book was published by IFWG Publishing in Australia.

Since Gillian was unable to attend the awards, Yaritji Green and Gerry Huntman accepted on her behalf. The Ditmar Award has been given at Australia’s national science fiction convention since 1969.

Gillian said on Facebook, “I was so subversive in this novel that I still have trouble believing fans voted for it. This gives me a ridiculous amount of hope at a time when hope is not everyday.

In The Year of the Fruit Cake, five women meet up by chance when they end up sharing a table in a café. They are all very different, and one of them — though we’re not sure for a long time which one of them — is an alien from a culture of multiple genders in which the beings change genders several times over a lifetime. On Earth, however, she is trapped in the unchangeable body of a menopausal woman and has a confused mass of memories about who she really is.

The book is available internationally.

Living Quickly

I’m a bit late today. I have had 3 meetings, read a book and worked and … I’m tired. I don’t have many words for you today, then, but my last few days got me thinking. I have so many things to think about right now that it’s hard to settle down to write about just one idea. What is helping sort me out is a letter I received from an editor. It was one of the most lucid analyses of a manuscript I’ve seen in a long time. It told me what my mind was doing. That letter also helped me see what other people’s minds are doing.

We’re all in a strange world and adjusting to it as difficult. This new world has too much quicksand. It’s easy to step onto something secure and discover the ground sucking us in.

COVID changes our everyday in ways we can’t predict. The emotional response to the pandemic and the quicksand changes our emotions in ways we cannot control. What this lucid letter taught me was that I had temporarily lost the capacity to take a step back and to see the world clearly.

In some ways we’re living very slowly right now, and we’re a bit divorced from the world because we can’t walk in it every day.

In other ways we’re living very intensely. In the late 1980s I clipped a cartoon and stuck it on a bookshelf, for it exactly summed up what the world looked like just then. Father Time was playing with a device. “Oops, I hit fast-forward,” he said.

That cartoon is even more appropriate now than it was then, for social distancing and iso and the world talking so quickly and passionately online while our local social networks are temporarily faded makes me think of the TV screen and watching events on it.

In the late 1980s Father Time was metaphorically hitting the switch that affected our lives. In 2020, we are ourselves in Father Time’s seat, seeing the whole world through screens.

Rip van Winkle versus the Spaceship

I’m dreaming of spaceships today. I want to write a story set in one.

I need to write a story. It’s only Tuesday here and my New Year is on Friday and I’m writing your post nearly a week early because of that festival. I was going to tell you all about Medieval Jewish foodways in western Europe and about modem Jewish foodways in Australia and I was going to make you cravingly hungry for honeycake. I’m derailing the whole conversation (one I haven’t yet begun) because of my dream of spaceships.

I won’t tell you the dream itself, for it’s going into a short story, later today. One short story set in a spaceship and I ought to be caught up on all my new fiction for Jewish New Year. What I want to talk about is the alternate path the dream did not take.

Before 2020, I assumed that if someone were inside for months on end, when they went outside, finally, I would have a Rip van Winkle experience. I would emerge to a strange place I did not recognise: the rest of the world would have moved on.

This is not at all what happened when I went to medical appointments last week. Sure, the streets look at bit different. I emerged to a financial recession, after all, where the strict COVID limits on who can do what. Overcrowding is rare and people are more scattered. There are crosses and lines to mark safety.

I knew about these changes, however, before I encountered them. Rip van Winkle emerged to a place he did not know and that he did not understand. While he was asleep, he was out of sync with the outside world.

It would take an active choice to be out of sync right now. Or a second terrible moment, like the wildfires in the US or riots or… a great deal of what’s happening in the world right now. Multiply the peril and one’s focus turns to keeping going. I suspect the US has many Rips right now.

Given my last twelve months, I assumed that this is what would happen to me. That I would emerge into a changed world and I would not belong to it at all. When I found that this wasn’t at all true, I needed another metaphor. Washington Irving failed me. It’s tragic that he did not fail the US.

I explained my situation a bit more clearly to a neighbour’s friend when I put my rubbish out (this was such a big accomplishment! Once this statement would have been sarcastic – right now it requires the exclamation mark.). My neighbour’s friend failed me in a different way when I emerged.

When we told each other what we did for a living and I said I was a writer, he took my earlier admission of disability to mean that I filled in my time writing. He was nice about me turning my disabled state to good use.

This was when I fell out of sync with the world. Had working for a living changed since I last spoke to a stranger? He moved off the ‘occupation for a person with disabilities’ and onto the ‘does this out of passion’ thing. If we meet a few more times, maybe he’ll see the professional side of writing, and understand that being disabled doesn’t actually mean having a lesser life. It’s a life with restrictions and much medical stuff, but it’s capable of being amazingly rich. Mine is that life. I commented to him that I was bored for a whole hour earlier this year and I looked at the boredom and examined it closely and exclaimed in wonder at it and that is when I discovered that I was no longer bored.

This is why I had the spaceship dream.

I was never Rip van Winkle. I’m in a small spaceship. I can talk to other people and am in touch with the whole world of I want to be, but I’m in a spaceship. No dinner parties. No long chats with friends around a pot of tea. No long walks in the spring sunshine. But I know what’s happening and can be a part of it. It’s only my physical presence in a place other than my spaceship that’s not a given.

Working Together

It’s time to let go of the myth of the lone genius. It carries too much weight in our world. In real life, nothing gets done by one person.

There are visionaries and leaders, don’t get me wrong. But they can’t accomplish things without a team. A lone genius who doesn’t have support from others cannot change the world.

This is true whether the goals are good or bad. The people out to do evil don’t do it alone, either. Trump would not be in power without all the people who jump to do his bidding.

Take energy – a significant issue since it is so tied to climate change (and right now here in the Western US, we are well aware of climate change). Right now there are millions of people world-wide working on thousands of ways to produce energy from renewable sources and also on thousands of ways of improving the efficiency of the necessary appliances and tools that we use. Continue reading “Working Together”

Family Language

What do you call the remote for your TV/DVR/cable box etc.?

In my house, it is referred to as the cacker, as in “Can you hand me the DVD cacker?” My kids grew up with this word, and had to adjust to more standard terminology when their friends stared at them blankly. “The wha?” “The cacker. You know, the thing for changing the channel.” “You mean the remote? You’re weird.”

Well, of course. They’re my kids.

I’m not entirely sure how this word came to be in use in my family, but I know where it came from. When we were very small, my brother used to hammer at things with a piece of a broken wooden toy with, if memory serves, a nail sticking out of it. We will leave aside the question of why my parents didn’t immediately take this weapon from him. He called his tool a cacker, and when he hammered at things he was cacking. Don’t judge him–I think he was four years old.

But do all families do this?  Continue reading “Family Language”

In the Creativity War, Sometimes You Need to Retreat

Even before the pandemic hit, I was having trouble getting traction on my new book. Lots of notes, lots of false starts. Feeling like a blind badger trying to find its way through unfamiliar territory. Since we entered Covid-world, it’s only gotten worse. I’m sure you all have your own reasons why it’s hard to get things done these days. Add to that a degree of discouragement over how hard it’s been to get my two-volume last novel (The Reefs of Time / Crucible of Time) noticed within the SF readership, and the result has been a creative malaise that I’ve found very difficult to shake.

Wife to the rescue. The moment certain outside stressors let up enough to allow it to happen, she seized the proverbial bull by the you-know-whats and made the call to get me a retreat-spot on Cape Cod. Sending me kicking and screaming, that sort of thing.

And now I’m here in Sandwich, MA, near the sea, land of great bicycling and even greater seafood. I’m loving it. Her instructions were explicit: “If you can write, that’s great. But you are not going there to get writing done. You are going there to shed all the dog walking and the house repair and the taking care of people who need help and the worrying about the state of the world and find yourself again. You are going to rediscover what it means to you to write a book, and why you want to do it.”

So, here I am. Too soon to be certain, but from preliminary signs, I think it could be working. (And I did write a bit last night.)

Here are some pix from the motel and the Cape Cod Canal bike trail.

CapeCodCanalside bike trail sundown
Sunset over the Cape Cod Canal bike trail.

 

Coast Guard, heading out toward Cape Cod Bay. I’d like to have one of those boats, tough and seaworthy. I wouldn’t paint it gray, though. Something bright.

 

Duck-mascots at the motel.

On Cruelty, Poverty, and Hierarchy

On Deep History and the BrainThe cruelty is the point. People keep saying that about the criminal occupying our White House, the Republicans in general, the Kochs and their fellow oligarchs, and the others who hold a lot of power in the United States right now.

It’s hard for me to fathom that attitude, but I’m beginning to think it’s true.

I just read historian Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain, a very thought-provoking book that takes history far beyond the Western Civ I learned in school.

He mentions the castellans, 11th and 12th century men who built or took over a castle, hired a bunch of thugs to defend it, and terrorized the people around into working for them. Random cruelty works.

Right now in the United States we have a lot of people in power who think like castellans.

Smail also quotes Robert Sapolsky: “When humans invented poverty, they came up with a way of subjugating the low-ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.” Continue reading “On Cruelty, Poverty, and Hierarchy”

Treading Lightly: Mending

Our capitalist culture wants us to throw away any garment that is slightly damaged. Socks aren’t expensive – why not buy a new pair?

But there are costs to that practice that have nothing to do with our bank accounts. Costs to the planet, in the form of trash in the landfill, and carbon footprint for the manufacture and shipping of new socks, not to mention all the packaging (usually plastic) involved.

My favorite socks are still good, it’s just that they wore thin in a couple of places. So I decided to learn how to darn them. Darning is basically using needle and thread to weave new “cloth” over a thin spot or even a hole. I used colorful cotton embroidery floss to mend some small holes in other socks before tackling the large wear in this one.

As I was darning those small holes, I wondered if anyone had ever done a “spiderweb” darn rather than a rectangular one. I searched, but didn’t find anything about a circular darn. So I decided to just try it. It was a little chaotic, but the result is kind of like a mandala, and I like it. Anyone who does Tai Chi knows that these areas of the foot are energy centers, so I like having circles there. And the weaving of these circles was a kind of meditation.

Little holes can also be covered with embroidered flowers or leaves, making mending into decoration. I like that. It’s even becoming a bit of a fashion statement to mend clothing with color, like a badge of honor, instead of trying to hide the fact that the clothing has done good service. It’s a reminder that we can still get good use out of things by mending them, instead of following the consumerist practice of tossing them and buying replacements.

Scraps of History

I’m supposed to be working on a novel, but a conference has intervened so I’ve been visiting Medievalists for two days. I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned in the last few days (for it’s a technical update for me in what’s happening in the world of manuscript studies, since my first PhD included matters of that kind) , but I can give you ten moments of interest.

1. Some illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages have curtains. A picture might have a special religious meaning, or it might be of someone losing their head, or it might be two people in bed. The scholar in question was introducing us to the little scraps of cloth and the fine silk thread and the holes in the parchment that make these curtains. I want to call them veils. One of the terms for finding them in a manuscript catalogue is ‘serpente’.

2. Ireland is creating a virtual reproduction of the National Archive that burned down in 1922, and it is a thing of beauty already. Plus, there’s some really neat programming behind it.

3. Holes in manuscripts can be turned into a part of the story. The hole in the parchment we were shown represented the Wound of Christ and dripped red paint. Continue reading “Scraps of History”