If You Like Beer…

“I like beer,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh announced defiantly to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “I liked beer in high school.  I still like beer.”

I wonder how Kavanaugh reacted to the news earlier this week that global warming is adversely affecting barley, a drought- and temperature-sensitive crop.  As the world heats up, harvests of barley worldwide will steadily diminish, and one of its most popular products, beer, is projected to skyrocket in price as its availability plummets.

Sharon Lerner wrote in the NY Times this morning that now-lifetime-Supreme-Court-Justice Kavanaugh, when he was an appeals court judge, had a history of striking down environmental regulations– for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 rule restricting the emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from air conditioners and refrigerators.  HFCs are the fastest-growing type of heat-trapping greenhouse gas on the planet, trapping 1,300 times more heat than CO2 does.

This reminds me of a seemingly innocuous question that my 7th-grade science teacher asked his class in 1967, in the early days of ecologic awareness:  “On a hot day, why not cool off your house by leaving the refrigerator door open?”  We stared at him dumbly.  “Yes, it feels cooler right in front of the fridge, but the cooling process generates more heat than it removes, and that heat comes out the back of the fridge!” was the answer.  We rushed home to our kitchens to check it out, and you know, he was right!  In 7th grade, I learned that leaving the fridge door open would heat up, not cool off, the entire house.

That’s entirely different from the question of HFC emissions, but since 1967, I have pictured all the air conditioners in all of the houses, apartment buildings, shopping malls and corporate skyscrapers, pumping heat out of buildings and into the air outside, as a sort of massive global refrigerator with its door kept wide open.  So the answer to global warming is not to turn up the AC during a heat wave– a classic example of short vs. long term thinking.  The answer is to stop trapping heat with greenhouse gases.

According to Lerner, alternatives exist, but replacing HFCs with ammonia, propane or iso-butane has been blocked, not by science, but by politics.  And politics threaten to encroach ever more on the rulings of the right-leaning Supreme Court.  More government regulations, environmental or otherwise, are likely to fail.  Imagine the irony, when Brett Kavanaugh one day reaches into the mini-fridge in his chambers for a cold beer– only to discover that there is no more beer!

Personally, my adult beverage of choice is wine.  But my concerns, at least in that particular area, parallel those of beer-lovers:  global warming is already affecting grape harvests.  Not long ago, I stood on a terrace in the Rheingau, in northern Germany, looking out at a hillside vineyard with the owner.  His family had been in the wine business for centuries, producing fine riesling at the northernmost latitude still hospitable to grapes of the original European type, vitis vinifera.  Because of steady temperature rises over the past two decades, he told me, riesling will now grow much farther to the north.  “German winegrowers will have to move to the North Pole,” he half-joked.  The land we were looking at will one day be more suitable for grapes grown in southern France!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The third book, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, and I will post on this blog when it becomes available on Amazon.  In this excerpt, I have taken out a paragraph, so as not to spoil the plot for new readers.

 

Professor Neelin added a generous pinch of salt to the lovely stew of root vegetables simmering on his stove.  The dignified sweetness of parsnips, carrots, and onions: three-part harmony, in parallel with the strains of a Bach Cantata drifting in from his living room.  Add textural overtones: the pillowy comfort of soft-cooked potatoes contrasting with the mild firmness of beets. Ah, nuances! Earthy, seductive perfumes of cumin, coriander and cardamom.  The challenge of cayenne and paprika. A distraction of lemon zest. Magnificent.

You really should watch the salt, he reminded himself- but the cautionary thought passed as quickly as a false alarm ringing in a distant corridor.  Hypertension, vascular disregulation, auto-inflammation, endocrine imbalance: what did those matter, in this context? The stew was a masterpiece, destined for an important dinner with the Senior Fellows of Mellon College- blood pressure was several levels of concern beneath that.  Now, what about the wine? Neelin glanced at the snow flurries outside his kitchen window, the heavily bundled students hurrying along High Street, a Campus Police car pulling over to the icy sidewalk. A red, certainly: full-bodied, warming, with peppery spice to highlight the stew, low in intellectual gravity, perhaps, but high in immediate gratification.  He smiled at the thought. Grenache would be perfect. Yes, a Garnacha from the Spanish District- algo muy especial, verdad? There were only a few old bottles of Garnacha remaining in his cellar three stories down, but why not- they probably should be drunk up, now that their youthful tannins had melted away.

———–

He gave the stew a final stir, carefully turned off the stove, took a wicker wine basket from his pantry, and donned a comfortable pair of leather slippers kept by the front door.  Life as Most Senior Fellow was good, undeniably, and yet he held an image in his mind of a peaceful retirement in the wine country of far Northern California- if only it weren’t in the Quarantine Zone.  The classic vineyard a hundred and fifty years ago would have been on a mountaintop overlooking the Napa Valley, but over the past century that had become too hot and dry, thanks to global climate change; the southernmost latitude suitable for the cultivation of cabernet sauvignon- or any variety of vitis vinifera– lay on the upper slopes of Mt. Shasta.  Still, far-northern California was a beautiful area. Neelin hummed with contentment as he opened his front door.

A campus policeman, obviously in poor condition, was laboring heavily up the last few steps to his landing.  Neelin recognized the man as head of security, often seen stalking around the Old Campus- and hadn’t his picture been on a poster denouncing drug abuse in the YaleConn community?  His name was Haley, or Halsey, something like that. He waited patiently for the cop to pass by, but instead, Halsey stopped at his door.

“Dr. Neelin?” he asked in between gulps of air.  “I’m. Torch Halsey. Security. Have to ask you.  To come with me, sir. Routine questioning. Recent events on campus.”

Ah, thought Neelin, his wicker basket dropping to the floor.  Here at last: inevitable, really. He closed his eyes. Perhaps the dream of retiring to Northern California wasn’t that farfetched, after all.

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Nobel Intentions

The yearly Nobel prizes are traditionally awarded for great accomplishments in various fields– either singular achievements or those accumulated over a lifetime– but more and more, the winners seem to be chosen with the intention of shining a light on issues of growing worldwide concern, if not alarm.

On the same day that the United Nations warned that new studies indicate climate change and its disastrous effects are coming much faster than previous calculations had shown, and that we are already seeing irreversible damage to the environment, the Nobel Prize in Economics  (one of two) was awarded to William D. Nordhaus, a professor of economics at Yale.  Nordhaus created a model for analyzing the costs of climate change and has promoted a global system of carbon taxes to combat problems caused by greenhouse gases.  Having read the Freakonomics books, I have a strong feeling that the solution to climate change will come from the field of economics.  For those interested (and all of us should be), among books by Nordhaus on the subject are The Climate Casino and A Question of Balance.

After a year of the #MeToo movement and its effects on society and culture worldwide, the degree to which the movement is limited and as yet unformed becomes painfully clear when someone like Brett Kavanaugh is elevated to the US Supreme Court.  Despite “greater awareness”, some things still don’t seem to matter:  the fact that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed (leaving aside the particular allegations of Dr. Blasey-Ford) feel that men in power don’t sincerely listen, and don’t prioritize their reality over politics; the fact that many abused women will no longer speak out, fearing the destruction of “stepping in front of a train that will get where it’s going anyway”; and critically, the fact that many men will see no need to challenge themselves to become better people.  In the immediate wake of the Kavanaugh debacle, the Nobel Committee saw fit to recognize Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad with the Nobel Peace Prize, for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”  No doubt the winners were selected some time ago, but the message is a timely one.

This year the Committee has also chosen more women for the Nobel Prize:  Donna Strickland in physics and Frances Arnold in chemistry.  Aside from the outstanding merits of their work, these winners may encourage more girls at school age to head into the STEM disciplines.

I have to admit, as Friday and the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize drew near, my greatest fear was that Donald Trump might win it (as a number of his supporters have chanted at rallies), along with the leaders of North and South Korea, for the negotiations over de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  The Peace Prize is often awarded, not for a goal already reached, but in order to encourage a peace process to keep on going.  But consider this year’s winners.  How insulting would it be to them, to award the prize to a man who mocked Dr. Blasey-Ford at a political rally; who bragged about committing sexual assault; who denies science and is withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, working to undo measures that increase fuel efficiency, and who favors coal and oil over clean, sustainable energy sources like wind and solar?

The Nobel Prize Committee has shown sensitivity and good sense (and yes, that includes Bob Dylan!).  May the Nobel Prize continue not only to reward human accomplishment, but also to shape our view of the human condition.

On the lighter side, here is an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The pharmaceutical researcher Walther Beame has one eye on the Chimera Project, and his other eye on the Nobel Prize:

Dr. Walther Beame, recently-appointed Project Director at Eunigen.  Scion of a distinguished medical family, graduate of a prestigious internship and post-doctoral fellowship at MassMed.  Developer of numerous theraproteomic patents, holder of top industry awards. He was even listed, in a recent issue of Inner Circle Magazine, among New York Metropol’s most-eligible bachelors.  Ha! White-haired and balding on top, in his late fifties, still most eligible!

Yet never had he possessed the same gravitas as on this particular evening.  It was the culmination of years of work, and the potential for a major scientific advance could be compared to… well, there was simply no precedent!  Not the first multi-species gene created; not the first stem cell injected into a lab animal; not even the discovery, over two centuries ago, that DNA could be snipped apart and recombined.  But it wasn’t over yet- Beame glanced back at the two security men following him at a discreet distance, slowed his pace and forced himself to take a deep breath as he rounded the corner to enter the main lobby, where his guests were waiting.

Beame stopped abruptly and stared.  What he saw under the five-story-high ceiling looked distinctly like a religious tableau:  two women sat to the right side, heads bowed slightly in quiet conversation. By the entrance on the left, a third woman had the vigilant stance of a sentry.  And alone in the center of the dome-shaped lobby stood Benn Marr, looking so innocent and vulnerable (appearances certainly can be deceiving, thought Beame). Looming high in the air directly above Benn was a huge glowing holographic projection of Eunigen’s symbol, the caduceus entwined with a double-helix of nucleic acid sequences in lieu of snakes.  The caduceus rotated slowly on its axis, creating the effect of a giant drill pointing downward right at Benn Marr. It was one of those unplanned moments rich with symbolic meaning: He is the One. The message would hardly have been clearer if a golden halo borne by cherubs had suddenly been placed on top of Benn’s head.

 

Crazy About Rich Asians

I finally went to see the movie Crazy Rich Asians, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Having read the trio of books by Kevin Kwan months ago, I suppose I was saving it for just the right moment.  I was born in Singapore, grew up there and in Kuala Lumpur, as well as London; the written story either touches on, or deeply involves, so many aspects of my childhood that I was almost afraid of spotting my own face up there on the screen.  Not that we were part of that scene (“forty million dollars on a wedding?  We’re Methodists– we’ll spend twenty million, max!”).  But the delicious street food; the clubs, shops and arcades; the Methodist church and schools; the catty rich ladies playing mahjong; and the city of Singapore itself, which I find a spectacular place to visit:  all were part of my life growing up, and all played a role in the original story.  Most of them made at least a cameo appearance in the movie.

To be honest, Crazy Rich Asians drops so many names of fashion designers, fancy cars and other luxury products that I tired of that aspect by the end of the first book, and even wondered whether Kevin Kwan was getting a kickback for product placement.  Critics in Singapore pointed out that, although the extremely wealthy, glamorous jet-set do live and party there, the movie did not represent the true Singapore in its full, fascinating diversity.

That got me thinking about some of my own struggles with writing the Fourth World trilogy:  would my readers tire of me explaining the Laws of Theragenomics, or the inner workings of the Flowsorb engine?  In decrying the evils of British colonialism, did I have an obligation to also include the benefits brought by the Empire?  Must authors always cater to some imagined average readership, as well as present a “balanced” view of society, even if that balance is false?

Of course not!  We’re writing fiction, and the viewpoints expressed in our fiction don’t even necessarily reflect our own personal opinions.  Obviously, the majority of Asians aren’t crazy rich, but Kevin Kwan is writing about those who are— as he comes right out and tells us in the title.  So to complain about the lack of representation of other Singaporeans– the Nonya shopkeepers, Hokkien street hawkers, Malay gardeners et al., seems pointless to me.  There were a pair of Sikh guards in one scene, though…

Why did I enjoy the movie so much?  First, it embodied a fantasy common in Chinese movies:  the underdog victim rising in triumph.  A bully kicks sand in the face of a skinny kid, who runs away into the forest, trains himself in kung fu and returns, years later, to exact revenge!  In this movie, crazy-rich Eleanor Young (played by Michelle Yeoh, who knows her kung fu as well) arrives at a posh private London hotel, only to be turned away by the snobbish, implied-racist, manager; from a phone booth out in the rain, she buys the entire hotel and fires him on the spot!  “Yay, Michelle!” twenty million viewers silently mouth the words.

Second, the movie featured all Asian actors, which is something I blogged about on July 7th, 2017 (Just Act Natural, If You Can).  The protagonist hero/antihero in the Fourth World trilogy, Benn Marr, is Chinese; I couldn’t help imagining each of the male actors in Crazy Rich Asians in the role of Benn, and unfortunately have to report that the answer is None of the Above.

And finally, it pays attention to the food scene in Singapore, which everyone will agree is a real treat and, along with the cultural/historical diversity, is one of the major reasons to visit.  At the end of the movie, I stayed through all the credits, just to see who the food stylist was!  What I’m really crazy about, I guess, is rich Asian food.

Here’s an excerpt (edited so as not to spoil the plot) from the final novel in the Fourth World trilogy, Child of the Fourth World.  It should come out on Amazon within 2-3 weeks:

At times, Chou had a strangely hypnotic way of speaking, and both Lora and Ari found themselves in a dreamy state:  Lora marveled at the image of fruit orchards filled with ripe mangoes and rambutans, the banana trees with clusters of fruit hiding behind their broad leaves, the pungent durians swaying dangerously at great heights; Ari, on the other hand, pictured vast bat caves crusted with chalky white guano, vertical limestone cliffs overgrown with red, black and green pitcher plants, large and small carnivorous members of genus Nepenthes.  Meanwhile, Benn was clutching his stomach and rigorously blocking any images of tropical fruit, especially durian, from entering his tortured mind.

The lorry chugged noisily along a central highway past a crowded Indian neighborhood, where the aromas of exotic spices rivaled the finest meals prepared in Building 714.  Numerous colonial-era government buildings, European Neoclassical and Palladian in style, all apparently sporting fresh coats of glossy white paint, soon appeared on their left side, next to the river.

“Wah, ho gun yew lang ah, so beautiful,” exclaimed Ari with a laugh, using a local expression she had picked up at some point from Ah Loong.  Lora frowned at her and pinched her lips between her thumb and forefinger.

Chou explained, “Those are currently PWE offices, but the largest one there once housed the Singapore Parliament, under British rule.  The old Supreme Court lies just beyond that.”

———-

The highway brought them over a small river, past the quays, and soon entered the old Chinatown, which was a maze of curved and terraced streets lined by two-story shops and religious buildings:  Ari recognized symbols of Buddhist, Daoist and Hindu temples, a Muslim mosque, several churches and a tall green-and-gold pagoda. The lorry, programmed to seek an address in a neighborhood called Tiong Bahru, turned off the highway onto bustling Tiong Poh Road.  By then, the dinner hour had commenced in earnest, and the surface streets were so narrow and crowded that it took almost an hour to locate the home of Superintendent Wesley Stuart. Street hawkers and restaurant owners competed for customers’ attention, calling out their delicious specialties, while hungry merchants and their clients, junior PWE officials, groups of uniformed Security men and idle pedestrians milled about, taking deep gulps of the savory, smoke-filled air.  Lora expressed her surprise that such a robust form of food commerce still thrived here, in stark contrast with the empty streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Chou smiled, thinking fondly of meals he and Mei had enjoyed long ago.  “These Singaporeans are so obsessed about their foods— like who makes the best laksa in town, the most phenomenal chili crab, the ultimate satay— that they would continue to compete with one another even if engaging in food commerce were a capital crime.”

A Warm Welcome to a Water-logged World

Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare organization in which I proudly served as an internist and rheumatologist for three decades, has made me proud all over again.  Its CEO, Bernard Tyson, has just announced that Kaiser Permanente, which has 39 hospitals and 12 million members nationwide, will become carbon-neutral in 2020, thereby removing 600,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year from our atmosphere.  Doing so will mean new energy storage systems and switching its sources of electricity to wind and solar power.  Tyson is among the speakers at the Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco on Wednesday through Friday of this week (you can view it live at https://globalclimateactionsummit.org).

Speaking at the same summit will be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will no doubt draw attention to the ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration to undo measures designed to combat global warming, initiated under President Obama.  For example, President Trump, who withdrew from the Paris Accord and continues to deny climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is now trying to make it easier for the energy industry to leak heat-trapping methane into the air.

A key organizer of the summit is Governor Jerry Brown, who is setting ever more ambitious climate goals for California, such as reducing overall emissions to zero by 2045.  But why stop there?  By 2046, he wants California to pull more CO2 and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it puts in!  At a time when Trump wants to revive the obsolete coal industry, Brown wants 100% of electricity in California to come from carbon-free sources by 2045.  (We’ve always been contrary:  see the Jan. 4, 2018 post on this blog, Most Likely to Secede).

My third novel, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, along with the Fourth World trilogy– but while doing the final editing, I wanted to share with you the first half of the Prologue as a preview:

The winter of 2204 had been cruel, indeed:  that was the jaundiced impression Arno Descombes had formed by early February.  An unusually heavy monsoon had swept down from the South China Sea, casting its warm, soggy blanket over the morass of lowland rice beds.  Fat globules of water splashed in king-sized sheets, usually for days at a time, onto the lugubrious padis and surrounding dense jungle where he was now confined in exile.  And as it had rained in January, so would it continue to rain in March.  Quite the local meteorologic expert after seven endless years in the Malaysian District, he had accepted by this point that there were no true winters to be found here— or springs, summers and autumns, for that matter!

But still, he could not help feeling a keen disappointment.  In many ways, Arno yearned for his childhood in Paris, which had been rudely truncated at the age of eight.  Having run helter-skelter through the Jardin du Luxembourg as a young boy, breathlessly excited amid the blooms of April or the snow flurries of December— a halcyon time followed by nearly two decades in the achingly monotonous, hermetically sealed environment of a metrosphere on Mars— Arno preferred (he was desperate, really) to think of the Northeast and Southwest Monsoons as two distinct seasons.  True, the oppressive heat and humidity never varied from one “season” to the next. Nor, on any given day in the entire year, would Arno be shocked to discover a muddy torrent flowing down the road in front of Building 822, his six-story Kenny Hill apartment complex. “So much for seasons,” the self-styled expert had muttered more than once to himself. And yet there was definitely a northerly wind at the moment…  Ah, winter in Kuala Lumpur, he sighed, hugging himself about the shoulders: this was definitely his favorite of the two monsoons!

But all sarcasm aside, the orange-brown river of mud had been flowing rather copiously that afternoon, Arno noted with increasing concern.  He inhaled its aroma sharply, like a sommelier detecting earthiness in a claret. There it was as usual, that pungent metallic tang of iodine and warm, sea-salty rain mixed with so many tons of liquefied clay, all pouring straight down the hill.  How was that possible, day after day? Wasn’t there a finite supply of soil uphill, and when that ran out, would the gentle slopes surrounding Kuala Lumpur end up flatter than a roti canai?

At least for now, the corrugated-tin canopy hanging over the entrance provided adequate shelter— but barely so.  From time to time, frenzied raindrops managed to find their way to Arno, who began to wonder if he might be slightly overdressed in his clean singlet, white long-sleeved shirt (buttoned at the cuffs) and pressed, full-length khaki trousers.  Soaked from the knees down, he sat perched precariously on a squat red plastic stool on the leeward side of the building. Splayed palm fronds and the broad leaves of a banana tree flapped frantically in the wind, obscuring an ancient, rusted street sign just up the road.  Intermittently he could make out the faded lettering: Jalan Kenny Utara.

He knew that “jalan” referred to the road, and it also meant “walk”; jalan-jalan meant “run.”  Otherwise, these words were gibberish to him, and he found himself unwilling to learn Malay and Nonya expressions, straightforward though they may seem.  He also refused to absorb more than minimal Cantonese, or Hokkien, or that strange Singapore-style English known as Singlish! The lack of motivation to adapt, Arno liked to think, resulted from a stout denial of his current predicament.  It was almost a matter of principle (likewise, he had previously rejected the patois of the younger generation in Highland City, even though he was one of them— at least in a demographic sense). If his first decade as a stranger on Mars had felt like an unfair banishment, his actual banishment to the Southeast Asia Quarantine Zone— his imprisonment, to call it what it was— felt vastly more unfair.

It had been a difficult, and still woefully incomplete, adjustment for him.  Most obviously, on Earth he had lost his professional status, and his living conditions had shrunken in dramatic fashion; belatedly, Arno Descombes had discovered the importance of those two factors to his sense of worth and well-being.  On top of that, global warming, although slowing in recent decades, had created an environment even more alien to Arno than the desiccated surface of Mars— almost its exact opposite, in fact.

“It was not always like this, lah!” Ah Wing, the oldest person in his building at age 109, had recounted nostalgically over dinner the previous evening, assuring Arno that monsoonal rainfall was not nearly as torrential a century ago.  In those days, nighttime temperatures sometimes dipped below 37 degrees Celsius, making a good night’s sleep possible. Malacca, Ah Wing’s childhood home, and Penang, the city where he had taught as a professor at George Town University— both historic seaports on the West Coast— had not yet been rendered uninhabitable by constant flooding.  Also, when the PWE arrested Ah Wing in Shanghai (he had been spying for the Resistance while attending an academic conference) and exiled him to the Quarantine Zone fifty years ago, the jungle was not nearly so overgrown, so densely populated with deadly reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects.

As if on cue, in the corner of his eye, Arno caught sight of a pair of shiny black antennae slowly emerging from a gap in the wall nearby.  Not an unusual sight at all, so close to the jungle— except that these antennae, waving inquisitively from side to side as if sniffing for prey, continued to emerge for quite some time.  Their visible length was proportional to the height of Arno’s anxiety; what’s coming out of that gap, he wondered: a lobster?  Could the local cockroaches (known to survive extreme radiation) have mutated to such a monstrous size after the North Korean nuclear strike in the twenty-first century?  That had been one of the key triggers for the Great War of Unification, he recalled, but there were many unintended consequences: among them, launching those missiles may also have launched a whole new branch of the animal kingdom.

“But no, lah— it wasn’t radiation-induced mutation.  Already big before the war,” his elderly cohabitant had once reassured him with the singularly discomfiting observation that cockroaches in Kuala Lumpur (KL, he called it) had always been gigantic.

On a Friend’s Retirement

 

A dear friend, with whom I worked closely for three decades, is celebrating his retirement at a lakeside party this weekend.  His practice of medicine was what I would consider ideal; my friend so embodied the mythical Good Doctor that I wanted to raise a glass of Champagne (that most festive of beverages) and share my admiration on this blog.  For privacy’s sake, names have been omitted or subtly altered (for example, I call my friend Chappy, because I actually once met someone with that memorable name).

I remember:  It was a Monday morning, July 6th, 1987.  Just out of Rheumatology fellowship, I entered my new office at Station One and met Chappy for the first time.  It was clear right then—and has become even clearer as I look back from beyond the Great Divide– that I was a very lucky man.

We either shared an office or worked next door for many years.   Almost never, at work or anywhere else, can you hope to meet someone so open, sincere and forthright as Chappy, so utterly devoid of pretension.  In a work environment that was always competitive (for better or worse), he never jockeyed for position, despite his obvious talent; he was so ambitiously dedicated to his patients and loved by them, so respected by the doctors and staff– and yet never felt tempted to turn this to his own advantage.  For young doctors coming up in our profession, whose eyes are often more focused on the administrative ladder than on patient care, Chappy’s total indifference to self-promotion is a great role model for the practice of medicine:  patients always come first.  As Station Leader, he was like the coxswain on a crew team:  gently keeping the beat and ensuring that the rowers pulled at the oars all together.   His constancy was truly impressive.  He didn’t zig and zag as personal opportunities arose, but steered a true and steady course every single day, for the three decades that we worked together.

(By the way, I will remind everyone at the celebration that, at the conclusion of any successful crew race, it’s traditional for the team to throw their coxswain into the lake!)

Going back to that first day in 1987, Chappy suggested we go out to lunch, so we grabbed a couple sandwiches and walked down to St. Leo’s School, where we sat on the grass and talked.  On my final day of work, in 2015, we again brought sandwiches to St. Leo’s.  Although the topics and the sandwiches were different, the heart of our conversation was the same—honest, optimistic, pragmatic and philosophical.   These conversations were like two bookends to my career.  In between the bookends, Chappy’s openness to sharing and his positive nature informed  the many discussions we had.  And when we talk now, it’s just remarkable:  except for a few gray hairs, he is essentially the same today as when I first met him.

My great fortune in working with Chappy, who was born in Okinawa, has inspired a few modest poems, which I have written in the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable Haiku style:

Six Haiku For Chappy

 

An anxious Monday

Hi, I’m Charles—call me Chappy

Not bad after all

 

Anderson sits down

Lester comes in just to chat

It’s the coffee pot

 

Beef and broccoli

Scrambled eggs and shrimp on rice

Just don’t talk ‘bout work

 

Staying true to self

Uncontaminated by

The lure of power

 

Build trust, not status

Lead quietly among peers

Family comes first

 

You could read my mind

I could read your handwriting

We’ll miss you, old friend

Water on Mars? Saw That Coming…

The European Space Agency just announced that their Mars orbiter,  which is called the Mars Express, has discovered a large underground lake of salty liquid water beneath the South Pole of Mars.  Actually, its ground-penetrating radar has been gathering data for years, and the ESA finally feels that all other plausible explanations for their findings have been eliminated.  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this discovery is that it once again raises the possibility of life on Mars.  Where there is water on Earth– even in the most inhospitable environments, such as the boiling sulfurous pools at Yellowstone– there is highly-adapted life.  And although no surface water has been found on Mars, the likelihood of discovering more underground liquid water is higher at the mid-latitudes, where temperatures are significantly warmer than at the South Pole.

We might expect future Mars colonists to drill deep for water, and for their water mines to help sustain the colonies.  Ten years ago, when I began to write Fourth World, the first novel in the trilogy, I had a sneaking suspicion that evidence of water on Mars would come along soon enough, and that I’d better write more quickly, before my futuristic science fiction turned into historical fiction!  With today’s announcement from the ESA, beyond the initial shock of recognition, I felt a certain relief and vindication.

Early in Fourth World, my protagonist Benn Marr goes on a Waterhunt in his Water Exploration and Retrieval Machine (the Worm):

“Grasping the steering handle like a divining rod, Benn guided the Worm toward water in a trance-like state, with eyes locked shut and a fierce facial expression which Jace found both inspirational and frightening.  It’s like he’s possessed, Jace had once told Mr. Yelic; I think he hears voices.  Sometimes he had to shake Benn by the shoulder to warn him of an impending collision with a large boulder.  Except for those minor deviations, their journey followed a straight path to the water site, which was usually a zone of moist gravel or clay, with an occasional small pocket of standing water, located in the midst of volcanic rock.  These zones were the remains of vast underground aquifers which, in the first half of the planet’s existence, had fed bubbling, methanous hot springs on the surface. The discovery of water was momentous enough, but the large reservoirs of methane contained in the volcanic rock– methane which, in theory, could serve as a food source for underground microbes– were nearly as exciting to the early explorers.”

In the sequel Fourth World Nation, there is no Martian life, but numerous fossils of extinct organisms have been found in underground pools of water.  These fossils, although not alive, continue to emit powerful energy signatures, as described in this excerpt:

“As he left the lowest rung of the ladder, Marc felt his foot slip on a wet rock, and, looking to his right, saw that he was only steps away from a black underground pool.  He took those few slippery steps in a semi-crouched position in order to avoiding falling, and soon found himself in knee-deep, strangely viscous water at the front end of the Worm.  It was an astonishing quantity of priceless water– a cause for wild celebration, if not for the severe damage sustained by the Worm. Directing his headlight at the five previously interlocking splitters, three of which were mangled beyond repair, Marc had a sudden sinking feeling, like a prospector finding a towering vein of gold, then watching the tower slowly collapse over him.

“But he soon realized that it was not merely a gut-wrench he felt; it was an actual sinking sensation!  Something in the black pool was drawing him in. His frantic efforts to pull one leg, and then the other, out of the thick, clinging water sent shiny white ripples into the surrounding darkness.  As if in response, sparkling waves of all colors came rushing back at him, splashing—or so he thought at first, but it was closer to climbing—over him, leaving his body covered with a diffuse glow.  He stared at his hands and arms, at the shimmering yellow and red aura now reaching outward from his body.  Bright greens and blues spread over the pool and up the walls beyond, reflecting off damp rocks and illuminating the ceiling of the cave.  Unable to take his eyes off the dazzling parade of colors, Marc was barely aware of his growing weakness, his legs giving out. He crumpled forward onto his knees, then leaned heavily to one side; the adjacent waves, as bright yellow-red as Marc himself, bobbed just beneath his chin, and he pushed himself upright.  Whether he lacked the sheer will—or simply the physical strength—to stand up was unclear. It seemed to Marc that both desire and ability had deserted him, and the loss of either one would be reason enough to panic. And yet he felt contented and strangely at peace.

“It was also unclear to Marc exactly how many hours, or even days, he had been sitting in that position, half-submerged in the pool with no inclination to climb out, before he began to hear the mysterious sounds:  a hollow blowing noise like wind in a tunnel; voices speaking or singing wordlessly, punctuated by deep sighs evoking feelings of sadness and longing; in the distance, a flute jabbing playfully without tune or rhythm.  Through the many layers of his ecosuit, at first he felt the uncomfortable chill of the cave and the water, but gradually he warmed (although the ecosuit sensors recorded no change in temperature). Flashes of red crossed his weathered faceplate and zipped down his arms.  A broad violet patch throbbed steadily on the wall facing him, and with each breath, the glowing green water rose and fell rhythmically on his chest.”

Spoiler alert!  Child of the Fourth World, the final installment in the trilogy, is nearing completion, and when it’s finished, I’ll post a notice on this blog– stay tuned!

The Faceless Base

In the wake of the astonishing Helsinki summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, a meeting at which Vlad impaled Donald in front of the entire world, the range of responses here in the United States has been only slightly less mind-boggling.  To a few, this was outright treason, or at least a debasement of America by our president, calling for immediate impeachment; to many Republicans in Congress, it was merely a “missed opportunity,” or an embarrassing mistake; to others, it was proof that Putin holds some compromising secret over Trump, whether of a financial or personal nature (also look closely for Putin’s bite marks on his throat).  And to many of those lumped together by political analysts and the media as Trump’s Base, the summit was actually a success.  They consider it only the visible tip of a giant, submerged iceberg of grand strategy and geopolitical philosophy.  The Base agrees that Russia is guilty of something, but Trump, like a canny chess player, must be striking a mega-deal somewhere.  He must have a hidden plan, a trump card, up his sleeve.  Not only will the Base never abandon our Chaos President, it seems they will cling ever harder to his agenda.  Aren’t these mad loyalists suffering from cognitive dissonance, we ask?  Aren’t they what Hillary Clinton mistakenly dismissed as the “deplorables?”  In my opinion, for Democrats to continue viewing Trump’s Base in this light would create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trump’s agenda may be racist, misogynist, unethical, hypocritical, dangerous to worldwide stability, pro-dictator, anti-immigrant, pro-wealthy, anti-alliance, pro-global warming, anti-science and environment, and so on.  But individuals within the Base are unlikely to hold these values and beliefs, all at the same time.  A racist may not be a misogynist, and a coal producer may believe in free trade.  However, if continually encouraged to see itself as a homogeneous, faceless mass, the Base will stretch in that direction; individuals will adopt attitudes initially foreign to them.  The tolerant will become more racist, the devout will shrug at sin, the scientist will deny evidence.  It’s almost as though such behavior is expected of them, and so they comply.

Those who took Psych 101 in college will probably remember the Prisoner/Guard experiment:  subjects were randomly divided into two groups, to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards.  When their names and individuality were removed– when they were assigned numbers instead, and made to wear uniforms– and then placed on either side of prison barriers, the “guards” became increasingly harsh, sadistic and tolerant of brutality over time, whereas the “prisoners” became submissive and frightened, willing to turn on one another.  In anonymity, individuals lost their bearing, giving up their innate compassion, empathy, ethics, principles and willingness to stand up for what they had previously believed.

By thinking of Trump’s Base as some sort of anonymous mob, are we assigning them numbers and uniforms?  Many of them are probably spouting opinions about tax reform, immigrants, gays, minorities and victims of sexual harassment that they don’t truly believe (or so I would hope).  Cases in point:  those embracing economic policies which ultimately hurt them financially, or want to destroy the Affordable Care Act, when the ACA provides their only access to healthcare.  Women for Trump.  Mexican- and African-Americans for Trump!  The poor in rural areas, cheering tax cuts which benefit the top 1%, while waving baseball caps saying Make America Great Again!

In a dystopian fantasy, the faceless Base– repeatedly labeled as such, their resentment cynically fueled by a President who values his own “winning” over the good of the nation, and pushed into a corner by an equally intolerant political left– takes up arms:  the perfect setting for Trump to declare martial law and unfurl his true agenda.

In my dystopian novel Child of the Fourth World, nearing completion (and with it, the Fourth World trilogy), the rebel leader Sun Wu Kong contemplates the effect he has had on his followers in the China District.  Here’s an excerpt:

His staff had designed the shiny outfit to reinforce his role as an avatar of the Monkey King of legend.  Of course, Sun knew perfectly well that the entire concept was nothing more than mystical hogwash, but the rank-and-file had embraced and— judging by their incredible surge of energy— been swept into a frenzy by it.  Based on his previous work in the Ministry of Cultural Genetics, Sun suspected that the Han Chinese genome— in particular, the so-called Faith Gene, which 97% of his followers possessed— was in play, predisposing them to believe in the power of religious figures.  The Monkey King had revived the troops’ flagging courage, and they had fought like crazed zealots in his name, resulting in a series of near-impossible victories against the PWE.  His strategists and field commanders were baffled by their own success: the troops battled as fiercely as wild animals finding themselves trapped in a corner, one officer had suggested.  Sheer desperation leading to mass hysteria? That seemed a plausible motivator, others agreed— but perhaps augmented by wishful fantasy.

As a former PWE bureaucrat, Sun understood that post-war modernization of the China District and the alignment of literature and the arts with political thought under the PWE had not altered certain indelible traits lying at the heart of the 22nd-century Chinese mindset.  One such trait was the perception that China had always, in one form or another, been under attack by foreign forces:  not just the ancient Middle Kingdom or any subsequent form of government, but the people themselves were the target— and these ordinary people were China, even though the country itself no longer existed.  The attack on the traditional concept of China, the oppression of its people, came in various forms:  military might, economic exploitation, moral and cultural corruption. Against that assault, according to the popular fantasy, there would always come a hero, an underdog who would rise up from defeat and lead the masses to glorious victory.

Why not a divine Monkey King?