Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Bad Ass-tronaut!


I've known about astronaut and electrical engineer Christina Koch for several months, but it's only very recently that I learned more details about her life. She's currently the record holder for the longest space flight by a woman, and you can read about her at space.com:   https://www.space.com/record-breaking-astronaut-christina-koch-female-space-records.html

There's a fun interview with her, during which she does a neat microgravity trick. Much more importantly is her perspective on long term spaceflight. And this isn't her first time in extended isolation. In 2004 through 2007 she traveled the arctic and Antarctic regions, and also spent a winter season at the South Pole, where she experienced -111 degree temperature.  She's been a member of firefighting and ocean glacier search and rescue teams. She helped invent an x-ray spectrometer for NASA, among other things.

A cool video of 5 things about her can be found here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5T37kIEXa8

Number 5 on that list is that she traveled and worked in Ghana – and so did my daughter Jamie! (I admit my wife Ellen and I were not happy about Jamie's original plans for that trip. Ebola was breaking out in nearby Nigeria and Cote d'Ivore at the time.)

Ms. Koch will be returning to Earth on 6 February, and I wish her a very safe flight home. I think I might have one of her descendants show up on Pearson Space Station or elsewhere in the solar system for my follow-up to my MG/SF novel The Other Side of Space. I already have Dr. Maggie Jemison in the first book – a fictional descendant of the real astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison. (Maggie saves Jason's life, by the way, and helps him to save... oops. You'll just have to read the book!)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Writer's...Flood?


I'm not a prolific writer. I have three completed novels, and many short stories, but it's taken me many years.

I know that's much more than a lot of folks who say, "I want to be a writer," but much less than others.

My day job is running my own small engineering company a) which I love, and b) at which I've been reasonably successful. That and raising a family takes time, so it's not surprising that I don't have more fiction accomplished.

But I also love writing. So much so that I currently find myself in kind of a strange position: I have too many projects that I'm interested in pursuing, and it's a bit paralyzing. What's the opposite of writer's block? Writer's flood?

The three completed novels are all meant to have at least sequels, if not be the first of series. Nevertheless, I've also started two new novels. The first is an adult mainstream story based on my time as a disc jockey in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The second is a ghost story based on Filipino mythology of Babaylans (sort of shamans) and some really fascinating evil spirits. As I've done more research, I'm getting interested in contacting and talking to whatever relatives I might have in the Philippines. My father was one of eight kids who came from the Ilocos Sur region. Perhaps my daughter Jamie will come through with the Fulbright she wants to pursue and work there for a year.

But what about the sequels to my first three novels?

I've always maintain that I won't work on those until I sell one of the first ones, but dammit, ideas for those are now starting to push for more room in my skull. I need a contract to just simplify things and help me choose a direction!

Any takers?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

You Can Always Do Better, But…


I make my living as an optical engineer. I've been doing it for many years. During the first half of my engineering career I worked for other companies before starting my own.

During the time of working for others, I observed the very common tension between engineers and salespeople at companies that develop products. The old saw goes that engineers say the product is never ready to be released, and salespeople sell it before the first drawing is done.

Obviously reality lands somewhere in between.

Writing does too. One difference is that the writer, alone, is both engineer and salesperson. The writer has to finish writing something. Sometimes you never think it's done. Sometimes you're so fed up with it that you wish it would simply go away.

I write, re-write, re-write, get critiqued in group, re-write. Then sometimes I let my writing sit for a while, maybe weeks, maybe months. When I pick it up and read with fresh eyes, I usually find a way to make it better. Sometimes I also realize that despite my lack of commercial success (so far), I can be pretty darn good, on occasion.

But I don't do this more than twice. My inner salesman yells, "It's finished. Next!" And he's right. You can always do better, but don't make one story your life's work. Polishing brings diminishing returns. Writing IS.*

*with apologies to Robert A. Heinlein.


My Father's Age

It occurred to me recently that I'm the age my father was when I was born. Most people experience this, and I have no new insights or revelations about the experience. It's just something rattling around in my noggin, and so I'll add a couple of pictures of him:

This first one is with his brother Manual (Uncle Max) on the right. As my own brother said, they look like a couple of Filipino gangsters.

The second one is with my mom. My father died when I was two, and so I only know him through stories other family members told me. Looking at this picture, and knowing of the times, I begin to appreciate more the difficulties that they both had with being a couple and raising their children. My mother never talked to me much about this. I may have been too young. Or perhaps it was just the way things were and they simply carried on without complaining loudly about it.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Lois Mc*MASTER* Bujold


Many years ago my friend Helen Kourous turned me on to Lois McMaster Bujold's truly great Vorkosigan saga. Like a lot of people, I devoured them rapidly. One of the nice things about being late to the literary party is that you get to read, read, read – picking up one wonderful book after the next. It's binge-watching before there was such a thing.

Several years later I re-read the saga. Now I'm near the end of my third reading, having just finished Diplomatic Immunity. If the epic has aged in any way, I'm certainly not sharp enough to notice. It remains a Hall of Fame-type collection and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Beyond the heart-palpitating adventure is the deep humanity, pain and love, despair and exultation, and all the places in between.

To be clear, I did not love Cryoburn, and I've yet to read Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Nevertheless, the saga is a wonder, and Ms. Bujold deserves all the accolades she's received for the tales.

But did she sit on her laurels? Of course not! She went on to produce the excellent Curse of Chalion series, and then the Sharing Knife series. This woman is a WRITER. She has more I-Wish-I'd-Written-That books than any other person I know.

And she's still doing it! Just within the past half year I've caught up to her Penric novellas, set in Chalion's world of the Five Gods. And by those gods am I having a great time.

If you haven't read Bujold, do yourself an enormous favor and get started—now!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Still Not Complete Failures as Parents!

My son Alex is on his high school's varsity Quiz Bowl team. He's not the Captain, although he does hold the unofficial title of Field Marshal. (He's self-commissioned, but his coach agreed.)

He seems to really enjoy the intellectual competition, but more so with himself. Nevertheless, Alex has a trait that I quite admire: Whether he wins or loses, at almost any game or challenge, he tends to have fun.

During the team's most recent tournament, they won all four of their matches, and Alex reported that he had done particularly well. "I really killed it today." He also spoke of his considering the opposing players, and how they might look at his enthusiastic play and think, Sure, it's easy to have fun when you're winning.

Then he told us of the realization that he had: It's not that he was having fun winning, it's that he was winning, in part, because he was having fun.

Some people never realize this. Fortunately, many do.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ain't Too Old to Die

The summer wanes, which is another way of saying that it's dying. Wanes is a better word, but I needed a segue into my topic: Death. To be more accurate, my topic is the fear of death. To be exact, how good it is to share with my kids escaping falling to our deaths.

As a husband and father, I wisely seldom go out of my way to place my body and life in jeopardy. This summer has been an exception.

In Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, there's an area called The Quiraing, which should always be capitalized. According to IsleofSkye.com:

"As part of the Trotternish ridge it has been formed by a massive landslip which has created high cliffs, hidden plateaus and pinnacles of rock."

It's also one of the most beautiful natural areas I've ever seen. No matter what I wrote, I'd not do it justice. Neither do these reduced resolution pictures, but it's the best I've got.

The Quiraing

The Quiraing

The Quiraing is also considered one of the Great Walks of Scotland. My daughter Jamie, son Alex, and I took that walk this summer, while my wife wisely relaxed.

Stunning, breathtaking, and a dozen other words come to mind for The Quiraing. So does the word dangerous. We veered off the main trail a bit. Okay, we veered a lot and found ourselves climbing up the side of a large mass of crags that I've come to find is called The Prison.

The Prison

While ascending, it occurred to all of us that going up was certainly going to be easier than going down, at least if we took the same steep, narrow, gravelly path. Nevertheless, we soldiered on. It was an adventure! Besides, there was bound to be a better way down on the other side, right?

About three fourths of the way to the top we noticed a second path heading down, but it looked "sketchy" to us. No, that wouldn't do. The path we were on had to go someplace better, so we followed it.

Many heaving breaths (mine) and a few bruises and scratches later, we arrived at the top. The view and the feeling was glorious.

View from the top of The Prison

We indulged ourselves for a good ten minutes, and then finally decided to find the "good" path down. My daughter noticed a gap between two rocks and crawled over to take a look. She poked her head into the gap, and then pulled back. "No way!"

It was a sheer drop of mebbe 50 to 70 feet.

We scrambled around and found another near drop. Not quite as sheer, but still un-traversable by non-goats.

That only left the "sketchy" path. And indeed it was, including a descent down a very steep rocky gully that we had to climb facing out, otherwise we couldn't see any foot or hand holds. The traverse wasn't long, just terrifying. My twenty-three year old daughter went first, then my seventeen-year old son, with me bringing up the cowardly rear.

Obviously we survived, and exuberantly congratulated ourselves. "Wait until Mom hears we almost died!"

But wait, there's more! On our way back, I made a tiny stumble along a narrow trail and fell. On a sidewalk, or woodlands trail, the consequences would at worst be a twisted ankle and scraped knee or hand. But this was The Quiraing, and by inches I missed tumbling down a hillside to die amongst the scattered Scottish sheep some 200 feet below. I felt great!

Flash forward several weeks when my kids and I celebrated Father's Day about a month late. And how did we do this? By once again subjecting ourselves to a possibly-not-death-defying fall.

The Toledo Zoo has a new and wonderful Aerial Adventure Course that includes options such as ziplining, an aerial ropes course, and a short (30 feet!) jump while you're connected to an arresting device that works kind of like a gigantic retracting tape measure. Another option is the Flight Line which is an 80 foot jump! We also voluntarily faced that bad boy. (No pictures follow because you're not allowed to carry cameras, phones, etc.)

Here's the set up for the 30 foot jump: The arresting mechanism (giant tape measure) is above your head at the edge of the platform. You look up and see the probably well-built device and obviously sturdy mounting brackets. The course attendant attaches the arresting cable to your harness. You see the cable leading up to the tape measure. Everything makes sense. Just step off the platform and fall – then immediately get slowed by the wonderful mechanical system and gently land below.

Here's the set up for the 80 foot drop of the Flight Line: Stand at the edge of the platform. The attendant connects the cable to your harness. The other end of the cable goes down, below the platform, out of sight. Even if you look down, you can't see where the cable goes. Is the cable actually connected to anything? Possibly not. In theory it is, with about 20 feet of slack. That's right, there's a 20 foot free fall to look forward to.

Once again, my daughter Jamie goes first. I think we should have given her the middle name of Intrepid. It takes her about a minute to work up to the jump, so I know that doing it isn't all beer and skittles.

My son Alex goes next. The bastard takes about five seconds on the platform before dropping out of sight. But that's good, right? It can't be that scary.

My turn arrives, and I stand at the edge, looking up at the sky and definitely not down. Dread diffuses through my body.

I imagine the hundreds of hours of engineering time that went into designing this system. Even though I'm an engineer myself, I have faith that the system was over-designed by at least a factor of four. Nobody would take a chance on the system being able to fail.

On the other hand, the engineers aren't the people who built or maintain or operate this horribly flimsy rig. Seriously, the other end of the cable might not even be attached to anything. I didn't hear Jamie or Alex after they went over. They could be dead already. My dread begins to coagulate into a solid, frozen mass.

I turn to the Death Guide, a cheerful looking young lady. "What's your name?"

"Caroline," she replies. "What's yours?"

"Spencer."

We chat some more. She makes assuring sounds. I stare at clouds. She reminds me that although I don't have to jump, my daughter and son are waiting for me at the bottom. Yeah, likely imitating very thin pancakes.

After what feels like mere seconds, and in reality must be more like five minutes, I step out, feel my dread focus and sharpen into a terror punch to the gut…and fall.

I honestly don't remember anything about the free fall itself, but I do remember the slowing down and tilting back at about a 45 degree angle. And then landing gently on my back and feeling relief burble up and tumble all over.

The best part was the aftermath, laughing and talking with my kids. "That was terrifying!" "Can you believe it?" "Oh my god, that drop was sooo much farther than I expected!" "I'm so glad we did it!"

It's marvelous knowing that I'm not yet too old to risk death, real and imagined, to experience an adventure with my children.