The Purpose of Life

As most readers of this blog know, I write a daily senryu (a haiku-like verse) and post it on social media. My purpose is to capture what’s on my mind each morning.

Back in March I wrote this one:

Productivity
is not the purpose of life.
Not civilized yet.

I am not a professional philosopher nor a religious leader, so my pronouncements on the purpose of life are strictly those of a lay person. But I do have opinions.

I have read excellent fiction of late from people who, in addition to writing complex and thought-provoking novels, do fascinating and important work in their day jobs. I’m extremely impressed by the ability of people like Malka Older, Arkady Martine, and Andrea Hairston, just to name three, to do great work in more than one direction.

The New York Times did a piece on Stacey Abrams this week that left me exhausted just reading it. She’s leading the important fight for fair voting, might run for governor of Georgia again, and is turning out novels while finding time to read work by others.

Clearly some people are able to be usefully productive in a lot of different ways at the same time. In the case of the people I mentioned, I hope they continue to do all the things.  Continue reading “The Purpose of Life”

Feeding Frenzy

One of the preoccupations of our household for the last few months has been what to feed the Elder Statesdog.

Emily is now 15+, which is a substantial age for a mid-sized dog. And for 14 and a half of those years she has been an enthusiastic, occasionally rapacious, eater. That changed last summer, when she started picking at her food… and having GI problems with which I will not burden you. The vet prescribed a (very expensive) specialized low fat diet, which immediately put an end to the GI issues, and which she ate happily (with a side eye of “I was always hungry, you dopes. You just weren’t feeding me right.”)

Fast forward to the fall, when she began to disdain the new food. Rather than go back on her old diet (of which we had quite a lot–half a bag of kibble and a flat of the wet food) we started feeding her rice and canned chicken, about which she was quite enthusiastic. And that lasted through… about the end of the year? At which point she decided that that wasn’t any good either. 

How does Emily show her displeasure? She snouts: which is to say, she gestures with her nose all around the bowl, as if she were trying to bury the bowl and its contents. This spring there has been a whole lot of snouting going on.

So the feeding frenzy has been ours, not hers. She may not be skin-and-bones these days, but she’s very skinny. So we’ve gone back and forth between the old food, the new food, rice and chicken, egg-and-hamburger, and some days, a steady diet of treats, just so she has some calories in her. She thinks the all-treats-all-the-time diet is just swell (she particularly likes the supermarket brands–the fancier desiccated liver or reindeer shreds from the pet store are okay, but she’s a Milkbone/Beggin’ Strips girl at base). So she’s getting them. And getting spoiled, and why not? She’s a 105-year-old Moldavian Leaping Dog.

We’re not going to be able to keep Emily going forever, we know that. She has cataracts, she’s rather deaf, and if she stands anywhere for more than a minute or two, her hind quarters begin to sink toward the ground as her muscles fatigue. Yet, if we take her out of a walk she still wants to chase a ball–a few times, anyway, before she stands with the ball in her mouth, looking at me as if I’m the Idiot.  She’s a very old dog. And we have decided that whatever makes her happy and keeps her comfortable is what we’re feeding her. The vet concurs.

Still focussing on little things

An Australian prime minister got into much trouble for quoting (many, many years ago) that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” We’re so busy focussing on the big picture and the life-threatening health issues that sometimes the small pass us by. I’m a constant reminder to others that the small is also important. And that life is not always easy and it’s seldom simple or straightforward.

I turned sixty on 25 April, and had a good (but small and quiet) birthday. I wanted to do All the Things, but pandemic is pandemic. It’s just as well I wasn’t impossibly ambitious because I had a bit of an infection in a joint on my right hand. It became quite severe very quickly and I’m still on antibiotics for it. Today is the first day I’ve been able to type anything that long since then. Everything hurt, including sleep.

That’s my reminder. Turning sixty is no big deal. Ignoring a sore finger can become one, if one doesn’t take care.

I needed the reminder, because around me all kinds of people have moved back into normal life… and I can’t do anything like that until I’m vaccinated. I receive my first shot on 21 May.

I’ll be very busy the next few days, for I have until Friday to catch up on everything delayed due to the hand-that-would-not work. I can’t put any of it off, for the edits of a novel are about to come through. The novel was delayed by pandemic ramifications (it affects our lives in so many ways) and I’m really looking forward to seeing what a US editor makes of my Australian voice. So I’m going from bad to wonderful, via a busy path.

Today was an in-between day. I was well enough to do an hour’s work and three hours of meetings. The rest of the time I complained at people, obtained more medication, and told everyone “May the Fourth Be With You.” I watched a bit of Star Wars, for it seemed the right thing to do.

I started writing this after midnight. This post, then is my first step towards much writing of various kinds.  In fact, you are the first readers of anything more than two painful sentences in nine days.

I’ll report back in a fortnight and let you know how everything went. In the meantime, don’t do what I did! If something hurts and you have no idea why, take it to the doctor as quickly as possible.

Because of the pandemic, I planned to celebrate my birthday for as long as it takes. I’ll start again when I stop hurting. Soon. Very soon.

Our prime minister complained for the rest of his life that we’d all missed the critical second part of his quote. Malcolm Fraser had paraphrased George Bernard Shaw and was trying to tell us all that life could, nevertheless, be delightful. Like my birthday. Like seeing friends through Zoom. Fraser made a tactical error in assuming that the press cared about communicating the second half of his quote but right now… his idea wasn’t far removed from my everyday.

A Different Kind of Fostering

Previous posts have been about fostering dogs.  This one is too.  Just not in the same way.

My friend B. was one of the first people to welcome me to the neighborhood clique of dog-people, the two of us bonding over dog names (her little pup is Minnie, my gangly beast is Maxi).  

Minnie is a recent adoption.  Her previous dog died recently, at an advanced age, and she waited a while before getting another.  They’d only been together a few months when Minnie started acting off.  They ran tests, and everything came back clear…. until this month it didn’t.

Minnie has lymphoma.

We walk along the curving path through the park, as she tells me the diagnosis, Max and Minnie trotting just ahead of us. They’ve put Minnie on prednisone, and it’s drastically improved her mood and behavior.  She’s not in pain any more.  But it’s only buying time. Continue reading “A Different Kind of Fostering”

Romancing the Prehistoric

I was – note the past tense – going to write a post about re-entry after Covid-19 vaccination and how awesome it was to give my younger daughter a hug after over a year, but then I saw this story from Science magazine and could not resist.

Did you ever wish you could see a living dinosaur? I sure did! (I still do…but from a safe distance.) As a child I loved movies with stop-action animation of dinosaurs, like the original King Kong or the Ray Harryhausen movie, The Valley of Gwangi. In high school I wrote a short novel about two teenagers and their horses who discover a hidden valley where dinosaurs still roam. Jurassic Park and its sequels blew me away, the movies even more so than the novels. The novels were longer on explanation, the movies far more powerful in vividness. The moment when Alan Grant, upon learning that Professor Hammond has created a T. rex and almost faints,  that’s how I would have felt. Great acting and directing aside, these books and films spoke to a universal or near-universal human longing to see amazing charismatic animals from the distant past.

The earlier stories, at least the ones I read and watched, made no effort at a scientific basis for the present-day existence of prehistoric animals. It was all “Land That Time Forgot” hand-waving. Crichton took a different tack: dinosaurs did not persist in some undiscovered corner of or beneath the Earth: humans re-created them using DNA preserved in amber. We’ve been able to recover DNA from Pleistocene mammals, but never anything as old as 65 million years. Many scientists doubt that DNA could survive that long, no matter how preserved. When an animal dies, its DNA begins to decay. A 2012 study on moa bones showed that genetic material deteriorates at such a rate that it halves itself every 521 years. This speed would mean paleontologists can only hope to recover recognizable DNA sequences the past 6.8 million years. In 2020, Chinese Academy of Sciences paleontologist Alida Bailleul and her colleagues proposed they had found a chemical signature suggestive of DNA in a 70 million year old baby hadrosaur fossil. If confirmed, this material would be so degraded into components, not sequences. It’s also possible the chemical signature was that of bacteria, not the dinosaur itself.

The Siberian permafrost that has yielded mammoth DNA is about 2.6 million years old, but freezing turns out to be a pretty good preservative of DNA. Scientists have now been able to sequence DNA from extinct mammoths 1.2 million years ago. That’s a world record. The previous record, in 2013, was from a 750,000-year-old horse. The new study includes DNA from three species of mammoth from three time periods (1.2 million, 1 million, and 700,000 years ago) and there are all kinds of reasons to be excited about it, not just the age but the evolutionary relationships and a previously unknown type.

Which brings us to the question we’re all asking: Once we’ve sequenced this DNA, whether from mammoths, saber-toothed cats, ground sloths, or whatever – what do we do with it? What we can do now is better understand the evolution and relationships of these amazing animals. What popular media want, however, is to use the material to create living extinct species. The process of de-extinction can proceed either by cloning – taking material from a recently extinct species and replicating it – or by using ancient, fragmentary DNA. We’ve got a long way to go with either technique. Many extinct species lack contemporary surrogates to carry the artificially created embryos to term. For others, suitable habitat no longer exists (really? Where would you turn a giant ground sloth loose? A saber-toothed cat? Or would these animals exist only in the unnatural environment of zoos?) Back in 2009, Spanish scientists cloned a newly extinct Pyrenean ibex, although the clone died within a few hours of birth.

There are, however, a few good candidates for which possibly viable DNA sources exist. Species like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet might fare well, given the human responsibility for their disappearance, although they might turn out to be temporally invasive species. Continue reading “Romancing the Prehistoric”

Treading Lightly – Grow Your Own

Remember all the spinach recalls a couple of decades ago, because the farms were watering with contaminated water and people were getting sick from eating the spinach?

Or more recently, the “throw away your romaine” warnings, for the same reason?

I’ve been fed up with commercial produce for quite a while. This is yet another area where we (humanity) have allowed profit to take precedence over the well-being of people, not to mention the planet. That’s why I started growing my own lettuce hydroponically a couple of years ago. “I’m going to grow my own damn romaine,” I said when I started. Continue reading “Treading Lightly – Grow Your Own”

Get Your Vaccine!

My reaction to the pandemic was intensely personal. I saw no reason to believe that I couldn’t get the virus and no reason to believe that if I did get it I would survive.

Not only was I frightened, I was furious at the incompetent and maliciously dangerous handling of this crisis. People like the criminal who occupied our White House for four years were actively trying to kill me and a lot of others.

Some of them even said so, like Dan Patrick, the “lite gov” (lite in all senses of the word) of Texas, who said people over 70 should die for the good of the economy, by which he meant Wall Street.

Getting the vaccine made my personal fear go away. I no longer worry that I’m going to end up dying alone in an ICU every time someone gets too close. I could feel the difference in my gut from the first shot.

But it did nothing about my fury. So many people dead for no reason. People still dying even as the vaccine is becoming widely available because those in authority insist on opening things that should stay closed or performing hygiene theater instead of dealing with issues like indoor ventilation.

I was never just angry on my own behalf. I was frightened on my own behalf, but I was angry on everybody’s. We could have done so much better.

Bad leadership was an obvious problem, but there’s a deeper one. We seem to have lost any concept of taking care of ourselves as a public. Continue reading “Get Your Vaccine!”

Down a Pint

I don’t remember why I first donated blood–it may have been part of a blood drive when I was working at Harvard (doesn’t that sound glamorous? It wasn’t–I was part of the clerical staff at an institution that eats clerical staff on toast points with sherry before dinner). I do remember that the drive was held in Memorial Hall, and it was drafty and cold. The technology–this was the 1970s–was all rubber tubing and rather punitive looking needles. Afterward they gave us canned orange juice (remember canned orange juice? It is a unique flavor not to be confused with actual orange juice) and cheese crackers, and stickers that allowed all of us public spirited folks to recognize each other on campus–at least until the end of the day, when the adhesive failed and the stickers fell off.

Even at the time I felt like this was a remarkably simple way to go about helping my fellow humans. So in Boston, and in New York, and in San Francisco, I have been a blood donor. After 9/11 I went down to give blood only to be turned away–for the first time in ever, they had more donors than recipients (for much the same reason that hospitals that expected a massive influx of patients didn’t get one, because in so many cases victims simply didn’t make it out to be treated). When we moved to San Francisco I didn’t know where to sign up–until a bloodmobile set up shop in my neighborhood. I would have donated right then, but my daughter–who raises needle-abhorrence to an art form–was with me, and threatened to swoon at the thought.

Eventually I got hooked up with Blood Centers of the Pacific, and became a regular donor. About five years after we moved out here I was asked if I’d be willing to donate plasma rather than whole blood. With a spirit of adventure I said sure, and was introduced to a whole new level of technology. Apheresis–the process whereby blood is extracted and blood products–platelets and plasma–are spun out before the blood is returned to you–is… well, I think it’s cool. But then, I love the fact that there is an industry devoted to everything from making little one-use stabby tools that allow the techs to draw one drop of blood for testing beforehand, to one-use cleaning swabs to ensure that your elbow is squeaky clean before it is punctured, to the machines that permit the blood products to be extracted, is really really cool. Apheresis takes between 1-2 hours, during which time I was wrapped in warm blankets, fussed over, and given movies to watch. Sort of like a spa day with less fussing about my toenails and more cooing over what a Virtuous Person was was.

Sadly, after about five years they discovered that women who have been pregnant tend to have a factor in their blood which, in plasma or platelets, some recipients react to very badly. No one wants that. So it was back to regular blood donation.

It used to be that my blood pressure was low enough that I’d run up and down the block before I came in, because too-low blood pressure would disqualify me. Or sometimes I didn’t have a sufficient hemoglobin count. I always felt a little ashamed on days when I couldn’t donate, but lately all systems have been go. And even during COVID, the blood center is somewhere where I’m reasonably certain they are taking All the Precautions–and then some.

The snacks are never very good–except for Oreos, which are a constant in a wicked world–and the juice is dispensed by a machine. Mostly I have water or tea (the coffee does not bear mentioning). But everyone at the blood center, from the woman at the front desk who checks you in, to the Historian who runs you through the intake procedures, to the phlebotomy tech who does the needle stick and sets everything up to draw the blood in a businesslike manner–appears to like their jobs and feel good about what they’re doing, and so do the visitors.

So I’m down a pint today. And in eight weeks I’ll go back again, because honest to God, it is quick, close to painless, and such a great way to be part of the community in which you live.

Even in a Little Thing: On Turning Sixty

We were talking in the Treehouse. The things we were talking about were important, and they got me thinking about a bunch of decisions I’ve made incrementally over the last two months and why I made them.

First, let’s start with next Sunday. I turn 60. I have some physical mobility, but not a vast amount, so I had planned to go overseas and celebrate my birthday with 60 events. I wanted to see friends, attend science fiction conventions, eat new food, visit museums, take pictures of interesting places and a whole lot more. Sixty fascinating events, all of the kind that I would treasure forever. Part of it was going to Italy for Eurocon, which would have given me about thirty events, for I’ve never been to Italy and I have a long list of places I want to see and things I want to do there. I was brushing up my Italian for it, for I can read the language but can’t speak it.

Then the pandemic happened. The pandemic is still happening. No big parties. No travel. This led to my decisions.

What were they?

First, I’m still going to have sixty joyous moments. Three of them are planned for this weekend, for my actual birthday. If I’m lucky, I’ll get more.

For the other events, I’m not putting a ‘finish’ date on it. I won’t get them within three months. They may take three years.

I’m about to hunt for the prettiest notebook I possess (I collect notebooks for my fiction and use the right one for the right project, so I have some choices) and when I find it, I will take my calligraphy pens and create a pretty front page. After that, every time I have a wonderful time, I will write it up, and that notebook will be a record of my birthday.

Why am I doing this? Why am I not just saying, “I’ll have a nice weekend, and that’ll do?”

Too many big things have been made small and a bit dark by the pandemic. I’ve won awards, for instance, and been unable to go to the ceremonies and have yet to see the actual trophies. The pandemic has caused so many friends to miss so much, that I see, every day, how people are dealing with the slight tarnishing of the everyday that creates our pandemic year. We have more sorrow (I’ve lost so many people I care about) and more stress and… this is where I introduce you to one of my favourite poems. It begins, “Even in a Little Thing” and you can find it here: https://starrigging.blogspot.com/2015/11/return-to-islands-by-arthur-grimble.html

My events are a reminder to me that this is a difficult decade, but that, since I find much of my joy in small things, I can still be happy. I need the reminder. I need sixty reminders. I need them because I was losing sight of the joy of jumping in autumn leaves or of drinking hot chocolate. Sixty larger occasions representing one big life change will push my mind back to where it has found joy in darkness at other times. I will return to myself.

This is the best gift I can give myself this year.

The best gift I can give you at this moment is to include you in my celebration. If you’re reading this (whether or not you know me) and you send me an email address, I will send you one of my stories and maybe a little cookbook I made for this same purpose when life took a turn in the 1990s. If you’re in Australia, I will send the story (without the cookbook) by snail mail if you send me a street address. In with the story there may be a couple of trinkets. I’m happy to send stories (and cookbooks and trinkets!) to sixty people, so feel free to share this with someone who would smile at this little thing.

You can send me contact details through the form on my website or through DMs on Twitter or Facebook.

Nancy Jane Moore Is Reading This Week

I’m doing two readings online this week.

The first is on Wednesday, April 21, at Story Hour, at 7 PM PDT on Zoom or Facebook Live.

I’ll be reading “Thank God for the Road,” which appears in the new anthology edited by Shannon Page Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day: An Anthology of Hope.

I’ll also be reading “The Founding of New Crockett, Texas,” which appeared as part of the Uneven Earth website’s Not Afraid of the Ruins series and will be included in a print anthology of those stories coming out later this year.

On Sunday, April 25, I’ll be part of the FOGcon Authors Read! It runs from 5-7 PM PDT and is headlined by Marie Brennan and Effie Seiberg. I’ll be doing a five-minute selection from For the Good of the Realm, my novel coming out June 1 from Aqueduct Press. To attend, sign up here.