Walking the Invisible Bridge

It’s only logical to believe in Mr. Spock.

What did you know, and when did you know it?

The catchphrase, forever associated with the Watergate scandal, hinges on the culturally accepted definition of knowledge as a body of facts. These days, facts, it seems, mean different things to different people. Opinion masquerades as fact, and sentiment obscures the hard edge of reality. But when truth itself becomes a matter of opinion we’ve sailed too far from the shore. Lately the news feed has me feeling seasick.

For me, reality is best endured with a touch of whimsy and chaser of mad romance. I need the comfort of music, literature, and films. Of course I don’t believe we can teach the whole world to sing in perfect harmony with just one song, or one book. Yet every now and then a film comes along that moves the global ball a little closer to the goal.

I’m not talking about important great films of days gone by like “On the Waterfront” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Nor do I care to weigh in on the blockbusters of more recent times such as “The Godfather” series or the “Star Wars” saga, though each of those has had a profound effect on our country at least.

I’m partial to films that shed light on the complexities of modern life. One such film came out late last year that dealt with the challenges of living with autism. Directed by Ben Lewin, “Please Stand By” tells the story of a young woman with autism who runs away from her caregiver to enter a Star Trek writing competition. It’s not easy even for a relatively stable person to write something original, and then to muster the courage to do whatever it takes to get that work critiqued. Dakota Fanning plays the autistic writer, and she’s fantastic in the role of a fragile-seeming woman who discovers her own inner strength in the pursuit of her dream. The cast also includes the gifted Toni Collette as the caregiver, and the always droll Patton Oswalt in a small but essential role as a police officer who understands Klingon.

That’s how you know.

When a writer, in this case Michael Golamco, isn’t afraid to leaven the drama with a touch of, you know, silliness, then I dare to hope that things won’t end in tears. And that’s what I look for in a satisfying film. If I want tears there’s the daily news.

Sometimes it’s important to take a breath of hope. A spoonful of fantasy makes the bitter pills go down.

To Light The Darkness

Sir Terry Pratchett spoke to a packed house in 2003 as part of his book tour for "Monstrous Regiment."
Sir Terry Pratchett spoke to a packed house in 2003 as part of his book tour for “Monstrous Regiment.”

The flags will be flying at half-mast all over the Discworld today.

Yesterday the grand master of satirical fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett, died at the age of 66.

The author of more than 70 books published worldwide and beloved by millions of fans, Sir Terry wrote literature that defies classification. While best-known for his creation of Discworld, a sort of alternate universe complete with wizards, witches, trolls, dragons and all the traditional fixin’s of the fantasy genre, Sir Terry upended that world with his brilliant wit, droll social commentary, and engaging cast of characters.

One of his most endearing characters was Death, who always spoke in all caps, and had a mordant sense of humor that cut straight to the bone.

My explorations of Discworld began in the early ’90s, soon after I read “Good Omens,” Sir Terry’s collaboration with Neil Gaiman, in which a plucky gang of kids averts Armageddon. A familiar story these days, but back then it was fresh, and no one had ever done it with more dark humor and hope.

The Discworld series brims with characters struggling to fight crime, poverty, gender discrimination, blood feuds, religious nuts, and rogue magic—all in a day’s work for the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork, the city that never sweeps.

I’m grieving today, because Terry Pratchett made me laugh. So much.

It would be hard to pick one favorite among all his books, though the top five would likely include “Soul Music,” in which a young man’s rock and roll dream takes an unlikely turn, “Reaper Man,” in which Death takes a holiday, “Mort,” in which Death takes an apprentice, and “Wyrd Sisters,” in which we meet Granny Weatherwax and her partner in outside-the-box thinking, Nanny Ogg, who breathe new life into the tired tropes of witchery.

For these and many more I am deeply grateful to Sir Terry. There are few writers about whose work I feel so passionate.  That’s why, when I learned in 2003 that he would be speaking in Washington, D.C., I had to go. At the time I lived in Fauquier County, a good hour’s drive away, and the event was on a weekday evening.

It was a gathering of fringe elements. Geeks and freaks who had been chuckling and grinning madly alone in their rooms for years emerged blinking into the light to offer praise to the master. The seats were filled with white-haired old ladies, blue-haired punks, obese loners hugging book bags stuffed with scribblings, lean academics and gnarly eccentrics, bubbly college girls and pimply adolescent boys with hungry eyes and insulting T-shirts.

The room was packed, standing room only. During the entire half-hour stage wait of buzzing anticipation the girl seated next to us read aloud without pause at breakneck speed from “Good Omens,” until finally we were delivered from her spell when a small man dressed all in black leather approached the podium.

And I was struck with a sudden horrible fear: what if TP turned out to be less than delightful? Of course I loved his writing, the dark fizzy outlook of his books, but what if in person he was small and mean? What if he was cold and self important? Or had an ugly voice? Or an annoying mannerism that dimmed his aura of perfection?

All these fears evaporated as he stood before the crowd—us cheering wildly, him raising his arms as if to raise the volume (which we did), then lowering them to get us to bring it down (which we did), then lifting one arm up and one down, to throw us into a state of confusion, where we merrily tumbled, cheering even louder. We loved him! We wanted to have his baby!

And when we obediently hushed, he began to talk, and his voice was perfect—English accent, but not snooty, more a kind of Python-ish shade of dry wit. He said so many funny insightful things in the next two hours that my smile muscles grew tired. He was kind, patient, wise, generous, and thoroughly entertaining.

Afterwards there was a book signing, a thing I usually avoid. But I wanted a chance to thank my hero for all the times his books had lifted the gloom that plagues my soul. So we got in line.

It was a long line. After the first hour, Sir Terry got up from his seat and walked in his stocking feet to the back of the long line to get a sense of how much work still lay ahead of him. As we neared the two hour mark we appeared to be no closer to him. Did I mention this was a school night? But I was determined, and I had given a lot of thought to what I would say. Just one line.

But when my turn finally came, and he reached for my book, he glanced up at me wearily and I was overcome with grief. I was so close, and he was too tired. I tried to say my line. He looked puzzled. He didn’t quite catch it. I repeated, “I wanted to thank you for lighting a flame-thrower in my life.”

Something jogged in his face. He looked up at me and said slowly, “Well, it’s better to light a flame-thrower…” I joined him to finish the line, “than to curse the darkness.”

I smiled as well as I could, holding back inexplicable tears. I owed this man so much. He lightened my sadness so many times.

In 2007, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, I grieved, knowing this was the beginning of the end. I lost my mother to the disease in 1995, but she lost her memory years before she died. I’ll never forget her.

Millions of readers around the world will never forget Sir Terry Pratchett.


The Mage of Reason

Spock's mind was his super power.
Spock’s mind was his super power.

Logic never made much sense to me.

When I took it in college I was confounded by its rules and axioms. The so-called self-evident principals never resonated with me in the way that poetic flights of sheer fantasy always have.

In general, I’m a pretty gullible person. Just ask my brothers, or the guy who scammed $12 off me back in 1978 to pay for his bus fare to see his dying grandmother. Yeah right.

But arguments based on pure logic always woke the mule in me. Until a certain Starfleet Science Officer known as much for his pointy ears and greenish skin as for his brilliant analytical mind came into my life.

I never saw the original Star Trek during its three season journey through the wasteland of prime time television from 1966 to 1969. I was exploring other worlds myself back then. But in the summer of 1971 my brother Billy introduced me to the series, which was in heavy reruns and already gaining altitude in the pantheon of science fiction legends.

The great thing about reruns is that they allow a newbie to catch up fast. With Billy’s coaching I was soon fully engaged, a shy but enthusiastic Trekkie. I never went to a convention. Although I did stand in line to sit in the original Captain’s chair when the 20th anniversary Star Trek exhibition opened at the Smithsonian.

So, is Spock really dead? I mean, I know Leonard Nimoy died yesterday, and I’m saddened by this, although grateful that he had such an amazing life and eventually came to terms with his Spock legacy.

For me, Spock was always the one. I loved all the originals: Kirk with his over-the-top thespian shtick, McCoy with his irritable grit, Scottie with his mechanical wizardry and never-say-die pluck, Uhura with her poise and courage, and the playful Sulu and Chekhov.

But it was Spock whose gravity, credibility, and wry humor made me believe that sometimes a little logic can be magical.

Leonard Nimoy himself, according to reports and things he wrote in his 1975 memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” and later in the 1995 memoir, “I Am Spock,” came to realize that, illogical as it may be, the character of Leonard Nimoy had so much to do with the character of Spock, that the two “melded” in the minds of adoring fans.

As a lifelong romantic fool myself, I found the character of Spock the most compelling precisely because he always tried to resist irrational behavior, yet, because he was half-human, he was vulnerable like all the rest of us.

The truth is, humans aren’t rational. Yet we continue, some of us anyway, trying to make sense of this life, trying to assign reasons for the infinite mysteries that surround us. It’s kind of sweet. And that’s why, if I had to choose one Star Trek character to be my desert island companion, it would be Spock, the tall cool one. I’d mind-meld with him any day.

Go in peace Leonard Nimoy Spock. And thanks for all the fascinating years.

New Wave: Who’ll Stop The Rain?



Untold secrets fester in the dark like starlets longing for the spotlight. Sooner or later, they burst onstage.

In the newly released volume of my eco-fantasy trilogy “The Greening, Book Two: In The Wave,” Shiloh Carter’s life falls apart when a secret she thought she had carefully stowed away erupts like a rudely awakened volcano.

For the last twelve years, since the birth of her daughter Eva, Shiloh has carefully maintained a facade of normality, pretending to be an ordinary single mom forced to travel a lot for her job. Eva has no idea what her mother does for a living. She only knows she’s not around much. But one thing Eva has believed all her short life is that her father died before she was born. Her mother told her so.

Twelve is such a dangerous age, the pivotal point when a child turns toward being an adult. They begin to question authority and experiment with all manner of things; with luck, they get through it and emerge into adulthood some years later. Not all kids are lucky.

Eva Carter has never seen a traffic jam. Born right after The Greening destroyed Earth’s oil supply, Eva hasn’t seen much of the world outside Washington, D.C.. However when Eva learns that her mother has been lying to her for years, she runs away and is soon swept up in a world where magic and mystery blur the lines between what is real and what is right.

Eva doesn’t know that her mother has spent the last twelve years fighting a lonely losing battle to stem the spread of Deep Magic on Earth. But the job gets a lot more complicated after Shiloh realizes her own daughter has magic genes in her blood.

While Shiloh struggles to find her daughter and regain her trust, Eva learns things about her own past that completely alter her ideas about the future. But when she risks everything using power she doesn’t fully understand, Eva draws the attention of Higher Powers who intervene to wash out the contagion, forcing all humanity to flee to higher ground.

“The Greening, Book Two: In The Wave” is available in paperback now from Amazon. It will be available on Kindle soon. In addition, there is a Goodreads giveaway going on now through October 28th. Enter to win a free copy of the paperback.

A La Cartography

Some of the most interesting places can't be found on ordinary maps.
Some of the most interesting places can’t be found on ordinary maps.

My status as an antique has recently been upgraded to “living fossil” due to my persistent preference for paper maps.

My children don’t even bother to hide their condescending smiles when they see me rattling the pages of my trusty map books, while their fingers dance lightly over tiny touch pads to ascertain the best route to our destination.

I don’t mind. Inquiring minds may question whether or not zombies will rule the world come the apocalypse, but one thing is certain. Once the internet is felled by a meltdown of all the bright gadgetry of modern technology, we who folded our paper maps properly and kept them handy will still be able to navigate through the steaming wreckage of the dystopian landscape.

Probably. One can never predict the future with certainty. However, with a map, even an old, out-dated map, there is a probability that some of the landmarks and routes pictured on it remain.

Probability is the spice of life. A little bit adds zest to every venture.

Recently our local weather forecasters have been taxing their hard drives with attempts to calculate the probability of snow, ice and frigid conditions.  I saw a map today that included a “probability legend” to enable viewers to comprehend the weather data. I’m not all that interested in the data. Data comes and goes like the snow. But I love the term “probability legend.” It has a winsome inscrutability that I find irresistible.

I’ve always been a sucker for language that slips past the fortress of cold reason and stokes a cozy campfire of possibility beyond the walls of convention.

Thus, some of my favorite maps are of imaginary places. The first map I remember studying with delight was of “The Hundred Aker Wood” in A.A. Milne’s timeless Winnie the Pooh. Everything about that map appealed to me—its scale, the little drawings of trees and landmarks.

I still find pleasure in novels that include well-wrought maps of imaginary places such as the stellar examples in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, which provide a superb landscape for a work of great imaginative scope.

One of the great things about maps is how they can be used to convey ideas beyond the geographic. There is a marvelous “Map of a Writer’s Mind” by Anne Emond, for instance, which offers a humorous look at the challenging terrain many writers know.

And let us not forget that most personal of maps, the human face, with its lines etched by time and experience. The map of my face includes not only the Frown Lines of Perpetual Worry and the Blemishes of Self-indulgent Folly, but also the Freckles of Summers Past, the Crowsfeet of Laughter, and the Pleated Lips of Kisses.

In our youth-mad culture there are those who try to erase the evidence of time on their personal maps. I would no more do that than I would erase an old letter from a dear friend. I’m grateful for every line.

They remind me who I am: a Probability Legend, if only in my own mind.

Star Stuck

Even paper stars entice us to look up.
Even paper stars entice us to look up.

Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder when I stopped wondering what you are.

I was nine years old when my mother gave me a copy of “Mary Poppins.” I loved it. But some parts of it stuck with me more than others. In particular I recall the chapter in which Mary Poppins takes the children to meet a wispy old lady who makes gingerbread stars. The key magical element was the gold foil stars covering the cookies that (spoiler alert) the old lady, with Mary’s help, pastes to the night sky.

Of course I knew it was make believe, but I liked the idea. The hard-edged modern world has little patience for such whimsy. We know too much now. Or think we do, anyway. Once those spectacular photos from the Hubble telescope started showing up on the Internet, putting to shame all of George Lucas’s special effects, not to mention Gene Roddenberry’s best efforts, it became obvious that the stars are far more complicated and numerous than was once thought.

Back in the days when the Greeks and Romans were giving names to the twinkling lights in the night sky, and in some cases imagining origin myths and personal narratives for all that glow, the chance of anyone going up there and assessing the actual content and dimensions of the stars was remote. Now satellites clutter the atmosphere, not only bouncing signals back and forth and observing our mundane activities here on Earth, but allowing us to watch the exploding swirling dance of distant galaxies.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. And right now, what with the eggnog and the rum punch etc., I really don’t need any more confusion in my life. I used to enjoy the Christmas hoopla. But ever since the 12 days of Christmas turned into 12 weeks I’m too burned out on the whole marketing juggernaut to stop and smell the gingerbread.

I miss that simpler Mary Poppins sort of magic. I’d rather look up at the stars on a clear cold snowy evening than watch another sappy holiday special about the meaning of Christmas.

I think meaning is best when it’s homemade. Like gingerbread stars. And this holiday, I’ll be pasted.

The Santa Particle

Inside, Santa's just a kid himself.
Inside, Santa’s just a kid himself.

If Santa is the answer, what is the question?

More to the point, how did this man in the red suit gain such stature in our collective consciousness? Oh sure, he’s a father figure, a giver, a jolly old soul and all that. But does that explain how Old Saint Nick became so entrenched in our cultural cosmos?

I sometimes wonder if the modern Santa fixation goes back to Pepsi and Coke, our rival libations, who both used Santa’s image and beloved persona to persuade millions of folks that drinking limitless soda was integral to holiday festivity. The Claus the refreshes.

Yet the way the notion of Santa and his whole North Pole crew has percolated through winter traditions suggests that the character resonates with people of all ages, not just children. If anything, I suspect most children start out with a healthy skepticism regarding this old guy and his bag of toys who sneaks into the house and eats your cookies while you’re sleeping. But well-meaning parents (self included) encourage small children to believe in all sorts of impossible ideas – mice that talk, pumpkins that transform into gilded chariots, fairies that live under mushrooms, etc.. I’m not saying those things might not be true in some way, somewhere, but I used to feel a tad irresponsible when I was trying to maintain the Santa charade. I mean, belief is powerful, but if you teach kids one thing and then a few years later say, ‘oh, yeah, about that? Just kidding’, you may inadvertently cast a shadow of doubt that lingers long.

Yet there’s no denying the appeal of the Santa concept. The notion of a selfless soul whose sole purpose is to bring joy to others is deeply attractive. If there isn’t a Santa Claus, why not? And if there is such a person, wouldn’t it be great if each of us shared some of that joy-bringing elfness?

This message powers many of the most enduring Christmas films. Not only the relentlessly aired “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” but some of the more recent yet equally effective holiday films such as “Scrooged” and “Elf.”

Children who learn early that giving is as much, if not more fun than receiving, can grow up with an appreciation for what it is not just to “see” Santa.  In time they may come to treasure the experience of “being” Santa.

And yes, Virginia, I do believe there’s a little particle of Santa in each of us, just waiting to accelerate.

Recipe for a “Great Dark Birthday Cake”

In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.
In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.

Shuffle the deck of time and space.
Stir in a cup of memory, a teaspoon of hope.
Add two cups of terror,
one stick of courage and a teaspoon of tears.
Beat in two or three hearts.
Bake in moonlight until shimmering with stars.

And there you have it. A recipe for an adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

In the last thirty years the dean of darkly romantic graphic comics and adult fairytales has proven that he can write about anything. Love, torture, family dynamics, urban decay, pastoral bliss, you name it. And all with the lyrical touch of a natural bard.

In his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, touted as his first “adult” novel after years of putting out works mainly for young readers, Gaiman returns to his strong suit. The Ocean is a mythic tale of childhood fear that reinterprets the trope of the evil nanny, setting it in terms of interdimensional magic and horror.

Gaiman so vividly captures the sense of peril that lurks beneath the supposedly carefree time of childhood that I found I couldn’t read it just before going to bed. I made time for daylight reading in order to finish it the first time. Then I had to go back and reread the last two chapters to run my mental fingers over the scar. It’s not a story I’ll forget.

But most of all I want to remember the ending. Gaiman writes with a poetic lyricism that makes me stop every few pages to savor a line, an image: “The cloudless sky was splashed with stars beyond all counting.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably not a book for young readers. But anyone who has survived being young can relate to the seven-year-old protagonist’s struggle to understand what is happening and to find a way to stop the threat to himself and his family.

Gaiman balances the darkness in his novels with an almost palpable sense of security. As the little boy recalls being in the home of the wise woman who helps him: “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”

Not every child is granted such a gift of emotional safety. We live in world where monsters prey upon children every day. The world changes constantly; still it hasn’t changed enough.

Gaiman reminds us that there is work to do, but he does more than that. He sprinkles stardust to light the path out of darkness. He invites us to explore “patterns and gates and paths beyond the real.”

But you might want to bring a flashlight.

Whose Woods These Are

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the block print for the covers of The Greening trilogy.

Leaves have already begun to fall in my backyard. The sunflowers are still smiling on their ten-foot-stalks, seemingly unaware of the change in the tilt of the planet, yet the leaning season has begun, when autumn exerts its downward pull on all the growing world.

There’s something strangely invigorating about the autumnal shift. Perhaps the shortening days, the cooler nights, are meant to remind us that the clock is ticking.

Mother Nature’s countdown is stately and subtle, but the message is clear. Our time on Earth is finite. Whether or not Earth itself is finite is another question, one hotly debated in environmental and scientific circles. But for those of us who take a more abstract, romantic view of life, the possibilities for Earth’s future offer a ripe area for speculation.

In my new alt-fantasy series The Greening, I imagine a slightly less dystopian vision than some. I’d like to think that future generations won’t be condemned to live in a dark dank world overrun with mutant cyber-human hybrids whose idea of a good time is drinking themselves to death in some seedy bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s your cup of tea. But as for me, I’ll take the road where the jolly innkeeper isn’t a psychopath.

The first volume of The Greening trilogy starts At The Root, where all forests begin. The tale centers on the struggles of a young woman who sets off on a quest to find her missing father and stumbles into a world of magic and mayhem. But really, at its heart, it’s about growing up and finding your way through the forest. And, like a ten-mile hike in the great Northwest, it’s more fun than it sounds.

I floated an earlier version of this story out on the web for free last fall, as an experiment. I learned some things from it. One of which was that the story I wanted to tell was too big for one volume. And that I wasn’t content with an e-book only project. This slowed the process considerably, as it led to more extensive editing and design considerations, but now, here we are, and the paperback is in stock at Amazon. An e-book version will follow in the coming months.

So, if you’re looking for something leafy, green and not too filling for your leisure reading, consider a walk in the Green Wood.