Saturday, October 24, 2015

Parallels between Alien Megastructures and My Family's Cancers

I got a message from my Mom yesterday.  Her kidney cancer has returned.  It was dormant after they performed a radiograph on it in 2012.  This time it has started to grow through the wall of the kidney.  She's meeting with her surgeon on November 16th to find out when they'll schedule her to remove the kidney.  
My Mom and Dad were supposed to come to California this Thanksgiving to visit.  Now they'll have to wait and see what the surgeon says.  If they schedule the surgery for after Thanksgiving, then they'll still come out.  If she goes into the hospital right away, then they won't.  We're waiting to see.  
This is the fourth Thanksgiving in a row where cancer has been an uninvited and unwelcome guest.  The two years previous to this one, 2014 and 2013, I went to North Carolina to visit the eldest of my two younger sisters for Thanksgiving.  She was dealing with lung cancer both times.  She was diagnosed in 2013, had surgery to remove half of her left lung, went through radiation therapy as a follow-up, had two follow-up MRIs that were clean.  They found a new tumor in her chest, too close to the aorta for surgery, went through months of aggressive chemo-therapy at the end of which the tumor had shrunk to a tenth of its size and was still shrinking.  They decided that the tumor was dead and was being cleaned up by the body.  She has since gone back to work.  Her and her husband have bought a new house, the first time they'll live in the same place for years (his work and her treatment center were several hours apart).  They move in after next week.  
In 2012 I went to visit my Mom and Dad for Thanksgiving.  They had discovered her kidney cancer a few weeks before.  I went along with Mom and Dad on her doctor visits.  They had decided to perform what I believed they called a radiograph on her.  They made a small incision, inserted what amounted to a small radio antennae into her body, pointed it at the top half of her kidney, and jolted it with energy.  It essentially cooked the upper half of her kidney where the cancer was primarily located.  It was supposed to kill the cancer without having to remove the kidney.  The lower half of the kidney would continue to function normally.  For months after her treatment, Mom went back for CAT scans and MRIs to look at the tumor.  It was still there, but it never changed.  The doctors decided that it was a husk of the tumor they were looking at, and that the tumor was probably dead.  
It looks like they were wrong.  Or maybe they were right and a new tumor rose up to take its predecessor's place.  It took the extra time between follow-up visits to make its way to the kidney wall and open up a spot a few millimeters in size.  Because of this, removing the rest of the kidney is the proscribed option.  
Oh...  During all of this, my Dad got kidney cancer too.  His was in the right kidney (Mom's was in the left).  They performed the same procedure they did on Mom on his tumor.  The immediate outcome was pretty much the same.  The only difference is that his cancer didn't happen during Thanksgiving.  
Would you think I'm being a little selfish and snippy if I said that my perception of Thanksgiving has soured over the past four years?  It used to be my favorite holiday as an adult, replacing Christmas years upon years ago when I stopped being a kid.  The company I work for years ago made Thanksgiving a four-day weekend, giving us the following Friday off along with the holiday.  It was way too easy to take the proceeding three days off and have a week's vacation just like that.  One with a feast built into it.  I was especially looking forward to this Thanksgiving, having my Mom and Dad, my youngest sister and her two boys, in town to spend time with.  And, it was going to be a cancer free Thanksgiving, I had thought to myself, now that my other sister had gotten through her two year struggle with the disease.  
It didn't work out that way, it seems.  Not only is cancer back, but it may keep my Mom and Dad from coming out.  It depends on what the surgeon decides.  We'll see.  
I don't like having doctors decide my holiday schedule.  Just putting that on record. 
This week there was a science news story that I thought was pretty exciting when I heard about it.  The Kepler Space Telescope has spotted a star with an unusual light curve.  The light curve is normally used to detect exoplanets.  When a planet passes in front of the star it orbits, the amount of light reaching us dips down.  After the planet completes its transit, the light goes back up.  A round, planet-shaped thing produces a smooth curve in the light.  The bigger the curve, the larger the planet.  
The light from the star in question, which is referred by its catalogue name of KIC 8462852, is very different.  It's not smooth.  And the dip is huge, blocking out 20% of the planet's light by at least one account I've read.  Some astronomers think it might be a huge swarm of objects, like cloud of comets flying by at the right now, or a densely packed asteroid field.  But the other theory being offered, which is getting the most news, is that it might be something artificial.  It could be a huge, alien "megastructure."  Something built, or being built, to capture the light from the star and convert it to energy.  
KIC 8462852 is too far away for radio signals to reach us, if anyone was out there sending any.  There are scientist trying to get radio telescopes pointed toward it just in case.  And the star is fifteen hundred light years away.  Any signal we did pick up now would have been one sent about the time the Kingdom of the Franks, a precursor to modern France, was established and the Mayans established the city of Tikal.  I read at least one scientist offer the opinion that it IF it is an alien structure, it could very well be an old one.  Maybe even an abandoned one.  A remnant of a space-faring culture that swept through space, built their equivalent of the pyramids for us to get a peak at, and they moved on, vanishing with time, taking no notice of us bashing each other with swords and maces on our little blue planet.  
It may be a husk.  What's left over from something long dead.  
Well, whatever it is, we can only wait and see.  The scientists, doctors of a different sort, will be taking their readings, getting whatever samples they can, to take their best guess (which is all they can do) as to what it is out there.  If they decide that the only theory that fits all the data points to the first solid evidence that there is something alive out there in that tiny spot of light in the sky, then my advice is...  Leave it be.  There is no telling what might come crawling out of tiny spots you see in the data you have, whether its on a space-telescope's light curve graph, or on a CAT scan taken from somewhere in one's body.  The only difference is that, out there, it will take so long to get here that me, and anyone reading this, will be too long gone to care.  
Well after this coming Thanksgiving.  I hope.   

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Good Bye, Miss June

A news article caught my attention on the radio this week.  Playboy Magazine will no longer include pictorials of naked women in their magazine starting with the March, 2016 issue.  The reason given for this startling change, given the magazine’s history in this country’s “sexual revolution” was that, with free pornography available a click away online, making the pictorials a feature of the magazine had become “passé.”  
My personal experience with the magazine started when I was about twelve years old, in sixth grade.  This was when my Mom caught me with copies of the pictures in my room.  I had gotten them from a classmate.  There had come to be a circle of us that traded samples of the pictures pulled out of the magazines, much the same way I had traded and collected baseball cards a few years before.  The only difference was my Dad didn’t get the magazine at the time, so the only access I had was through this little exchange that took place in far corner of the playing field, behind the baseball backstop, during the lunch recess break.  
I was perusing my collection, first putting them in date order, “Miss March, Miss April, Miss June...  Where was Miss May?” And then by personal preference.  It was while I was engaged in this activity, trying to decide if I like Miss April better than Miss March, or maybe thinking that if I took Miss April’s face and hair, which I thought was prettier, and put it on Miss June’s body in that pose, THAT would be the most ideal Playmate I could create within the collection I had, that my bedroom door suddenly flew open.  
“I brought your laundry up and folded it for you...”  My mom was walking into my room to put my clothes on my dresser.  I had been so focused on going through my collection of Playmate pictures I hadn’t heard her trudging up the stairs with the laundry.  “Don’t leave it set there, put it away in the...”  This was when she paused in turning back toward the door, seeing the shocked expression on my face.  
“Nothing.”  I shoved the pictures under the blankets of my unmade bed.  
“What do you have there?”  
“Bring it out and show it...”  
My bedroom had a door that opened onto the upstairs patio, a big open space on top of the garage.  I ran through this door to the far side of the patio.  Not knowing what else to do, I raised my hand to throw my entire precious collection into the neighbor’s yard.  I don’t remember if I had a plan to retrieve them or not.  I just didn’t want them in my hands when my mom...
I froze.  
“Turn around and let me see what you have.  Now.”  
I complied.  Head down.  I handed the pictures over to her.  My classmates had told me their mothers had torn up similar pictures when found.  I looked up, seeing my mother’s stern, unforgiving expression as she fixed me in place with her eyes.  
Pictures in hand, she looked down to see what they were.  And smirked.
“Miss June...”  She shook her head with a chuckle.  After flipping through them a couple of times, she extended her hand with the pictures back toward me.  “Here.”  
“You want them?”  She gestured toward the edge of the patio.  “If you want to throw them away, that’s up to you.  From the way you were hiding them, I don’t think you want to do that.”  
Very uncertain, I retrieved the photos from her.  She turned and headed back into my room.  I followed, wondering if I was being set up for something.  
“You want me to throw them away?”  I stood in the door and watched as she pulled some jeans from the laundry basket.  She set them on top of the shirts she’ll put on my dresser before.  
She answered my question with one of her own.  “Do you like looking at pictures like that?”  
Ah!  Here it was.  This was a trick question, I was sure.  I wasn’t going to try to lie to her.  But I wasn’t going to throw myself on the train track either.  
“I dunno,” I replied, dodging the obvious trap.  
She snorted and smirked again.  Then she turned to face me.  
“You’re that age now.”  She nodded in a self-assuring way.  “You’re gonna look at girls more and liking it.”  She then fixed me with her eyes again.  “Just promise me one thing...”  
“Uh...  What?”  
“When you look at pictures like that, or when you look at girls at school, can you remember that you’re looking at a person?  Can you promise me that?”  
At the time, I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.  Of course I knew they were persons.  They weren’t like drawings or sculptures.  But rather than dig into what she wanted out of me, I said, sure...  I’d remember that.  Promise.  
I kept those pictures.  And got more.  I continued to look through Playboy.  Even getting my own subscription.   
AND...  I REALLY was one of the people that read the articles.  Like the one about Swinger Clubs that appeared in the late seventies.  The writer of the piece had a revelation that he shared that the willingness to have sex with you was one of the most powerful things that made a woman attractive.  Or Harlan Ellison’s article about the three things you should never screw with: Your Job, Sex and Violence.  The story he told about being hired to work at Disney, but got fired his first day at work after being overheard imitating Mickey and Minnie making a porno film together, was priceless.  Or Vincent Bugliosi’s article about the O.J. Simpson trial that convinced me beyond a doubt that O.J. did it, and taught me what made a good trial lawyer.  
Eventually, I let the subscription lapse.  I would get the magazine, flip through it, and set it on the growing stack of back issues.  The only time I would go through them was when I hear about an article in the news that I hadn’t spotted, making me go through the issues until I found it and read it for myself.  Jessie Ventura’s interview, where he is misquoted about his opinion on the tail-hook scandal was one of those.  
There finally came the day when I cleaned out my closest and took all those back issues to the recycling station.  I did it at a time when no one else would be there, because...  Well...  It just seemed wrong.  It wasn’t like the women in the pictorials were turned ugly, or their pictures spoiled in some way.  Playboy is one of the fun magazines that, no matter how long you keep it, it’s still worth flipping through.  
Or was.  Guess that’s changing.  Which is what happened to me.  Though I didn’t think it this clearly at the time, I did have a feeling that the magazine wasn’t for me.  I wasn’t going to be driving the cars they featured in their “what to buy” articles, nor was I going to get those expensive knick-knacks.  And the women didn’t appeal to me as much.  They were good to look at, to be sure.  Splendid eye-candy.  But my tastes in attractiveness had moved to something...  More down to earth, shall we say.  
It reminds me of another Playboy related story I heard long ago.  This was when the original Playboy mansion, in Chicago, was being sold.  They were moving to the new mansion they’d built in Los Angeles.  They’d hired people to come and remove all the furnishings and things from the mansion.  
One of the people they interviewed on the radio was the guy removing all the electronics and sound system.  He told the reporter that it was, “all junk.”  Sure, he admitted, it had been state of the art back when Hefner had moved into the mansion in 1953.  More than twenty years later, though, he was lamenting that he wouldn’t be able to give the equipment away.  
With stereos it’s easy to see how things change.  I never thought I see it change with naked women, too.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A S**t Sandwich with Ketchup and Mayo Only, Please!

I'm planning a trip to Japan in the spring.  It's been about eight years since I was there last.  I was hoping that the 2017 WorldCon was going to be there to give me the excuse I needed to motivate me, but Helsinki won instead.  As a result, I'm telling myself to give up the excuses and do what I need to do to get there.  
As part of my effort, I went online to see how much airfare to Japan would cost.  Using the American Express travel site, I found a range of prices from about a thousand dollars to around fifteen hundred from a number of airlines I recognized.  
But one there was on airline that was offering round trip airfare for a little over $600.  I had never heard of this carrier: China Eastern Airlines.  With a fare that low, I figured there had to be a catch. 
Turns out, there is.  After posting questions to friends on Facebook and reading reviews on Yelp, it seems that the overall impression of the airline is pretty bad.  They had three listings on Yelp, the highest rated of which was two stars.  People wrote paragraphs describing one airline horror after another.  Every flight was late.  Kept on hold for an hour before the automated system hung up.  Food was horrible, even by airline standards.  One reviewer posted pictures of her luggage with gaping holes torn in them that weren't there when she handed the luggage over at check-in and boarded the plan.  
There was was one reviewer whose review was useful to me, though not in deciding on whether or not to use China Eastern Airlines.  This guy had his own list of problems he had on the flight.  It was a laundry list of problems we all sometimes experience when traveling, all bound up in one horrific trip.  At the end of the review, though, he admitted that he has flown China Eastern Airlines before.  Several times, in fact.  The purpose of his review wasn't to dissuade other people from using the carrier.  It was letting them know what they were getting into if they decided to buy a ticket on one of their flights.  For him, the cost savings was enough to use them.  If others were willing to put up with the same sort of shit to save several hundred dollars, then go ahead and use them.  
I'm not one of those people.  Not when it comes to flying.  But it reminded me of something else I found online while trying to figure what to do with my life.  
It's a blog posting by a writer named Mark Manson, posted in September, 2014.  The title of the posting is, "7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose."  Mark rejects the idea of a Life Purpose as being something given to us from on-high that we have to search creation to find.  For him, a Life Purpose is doing something important with the little time we have on this planet.  Doing important things gives our life meaning and happiness.  Unimportant things just waste the time we have.  So, it's better to find things to do that are important.  To find those things, he provides seven odd questions to help focus your attention on them. 
The first one is the one that I keep remembering.  It's also the one that inspired the title of this blog entry: "What's your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?"  
The premise of the question is that everything you do, even the most enjoyable activities, even the thing you've decided is your Life Purpose, will suck sometimes.  Long hours of practice.  Having your work rejected.  Failure.  It happens.  The question, or the answer to Mark's question, is to find something important to do, something you enjoy doing so much, or is so important to do, that you're willing to deal with the crappy, sucky parts to see it to completion.  
For the Yelp reviewer, saving enough money to be able to travel to places he's not been to before was important enough to chow down on the particular noisome sandwich of flying the aforementioned airline.  As one who likes to travel, I can understand that.  To a degree.  I know people who refuse to fly economy to get anywhere.  The experience of flying is such that they have to have the comfort level of business class at least, first class if possible, in order to endure it.  For me, wanting to get to the places I've been, I'm willing to deal with some crowding and inconvenience in order to save enough money to get there.  
When it comes to travel, then, my shit sandwich is something like a burger slider, heavy on the spicy mustard of my anticipation of the enjoyment I'll have when I get there.  Something I can pop in my mouth, chew it up and swallow it down in one bite.  The reviewer that has flown on China Eastern Airlines a number of times apparently enjoys big footlong excrement subs, piled high with very little dressing on the bun.  To answer the second half of the question, the reviewer's sandwich has an olive.  Mine doesn't.  
I came across Mark's blog while trying to use the internet as a sort of crystal ball.  I've had a flip-flop in my view on my writing recently.  In August, I was feeling pretty good.  I had just finished a workable draft of my novel and sent it to some writer-friends of mine to alpha read.  I was working on a sample script to give to a former creative partner of mine with an "in" at an animation studio.  I had met someone at a convention that worked as a futurist, writing science fictional treatments as part of the work of a consulting firm to help big companies figure out the direction they want to go in the next fifteen to twenty years, that held out the possibility of getting freelance gigs doing the same.  The future seemed filled with possibilities.  
Now, those possibilities are feeling more like mirages.  The initial feedback on my novel isn't good.  I knew it needed work, but...  This Much?  The script is bogging down in the details (working with a famous comic book character that's famous about leaving clues about their deeds in a particular way that's REALLY hard to recreate).  And after going through the set-up process with the futurist consulting firm, I've had no response since then.  
It happens.  This is part of my shit sandwich when it comes to writing.  It's the part that I have the biggest problem with that's the hardest to deal with.  The sense of rejection.  The feeling that what you do isn't good enough.  That after all these years of working at it, I'm still not quite good enough to get an outright, "Yes!" or "It was terrific!" or "Here you go, the breakthrough you've been dreaming of!"  
It colors your perception of things.  During this time period, I received my notice from the people that run Comic-Con in San Diego that I'm due to validate my status as an attending professional.  Every three years you fill out a form where you list your most recent credits.  They decide if you qualify as a "Professional Writer."  If they say yes, then you get put on their list and register to go to the convention for free.  
I am 99.9999997% certain that I'll be approved again this year.  It will be my twentieth year as a validated professional.  
I've still not sent the forms in.  Instead of looking at them thinking, "Great!  Twenty years a Pro!  That's an accomplishment!" I've been feeling more like, "What'll I do in three years from now if I don't have anything more published by then?"  
It's time for a conclusion to this essay, so I guess I'll say that...  I'll just have to deal with it.  Take it one page at a time, or one bite at a time, and do what I need to do in order to have stuff done by then.  Rewrite the novel.  Find that character's voice in the script.  Follow up with my contact and say, "Hey...  By any chance, you have something you want me to write for you?"  
Bite.  Chew.  Swallow.  Put a little mayonnaise and ketchup on the bun, hold the veggies.  That's how I like mine.  

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Aren't We All Martians, Really?

I am planning to go see The Martian this weekend.  It's the movie based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name, staring Matt Damon, about an astronaut that is stranded on the planet Mars when his crew mates presume him to be dead, forcing him to figure out how to survive long enough for them to return and pick him up.  
I didn't read the book.  I've heard great things about it and the adaptation.  I do like science fiction films, especially those rare ones that make an effort to get the science backing them up right, as this one seems to have done.  The biggest reason I want to see this movie, though, is because it seems like a film written about me.  
It's a movie about a guy, a hundred fifty million miles away from where he wants to be, trying to figure out how to stay alive long enough to get there.  
I noticed some years ago that most of the stories I write are about people dealing with problems in isolation.  My short story published in Analog earlier this year, Robot Boss, was about a worker who is alone in thinking that it was sentient expert system he reports to that made a mistake his company is on the hook for, and how he tries to figure out and prove that.  Another story of mine, Shadow Angel, which was published in Asimov's science fiction in 2011, was told from the point of view of a pilot either experiencing powerful hallucinations overwhelming his perceptions or receiving communications from an alien intelligence with no objective way to tell which it is.  A short story I'm working on now, using the working title of Brother Like Me, is, like The Martian, about someone stranded by his crew on an alien world.  In my story, the main character is caught between two alien species that he can't communicate with, one that wants him to leave with them, the other that wants him to stay.  
I remember my mom telling me several times when I was a child, "You are born into this world alone and you die alone."  Hearing this used to scare me as a kid.  When I became more of a snarky teenager, I put my mother's penchant for saying dark and gloomy things to her kids down to her being born in a third world country.  Where else would you get a mindset like that?  
Older now, I share my mother's views on life in this regard.  Life is a lonely place to be.  Most of our efforts are like those of the character in The Martian, trying to get people, someone, anyone out there, to listen to us.  To recognize that we exist, to begin with.  To communicate back to us.  
When I was a Theatre major in school, the first play I directed was a one-act called, "Hello, Out There!" by William Saroyan.  It's about a drifter that has been wrongly accused of molesting the wife of someone in the town, at least according to him, and is alone in a jail cell, trying to get someone to listen to his side of the story.  The only person that comes at his call is a young girl who cleans the jail at night.  Both of them use the title of the play as a line of dialogue at different parts of the play.  Both times it is used to emphasize how alone people generally are in life.  I received a great deal of praise from my teachers about how I brought this sense of isolation out of the play.  I was pleased, but somewhat surprised as I didn't know I was doing that at the time.  
As I'm writing this, I'm sitting in one of the reading rooms in my local library.  There are about two dozen people around me.  We're all bent over our screens, typing, writing, studying.  One of these people might even be reading my blog right now, wondering if I'm going to update it this week.  Or maybe not.
Recently, I've received friend requests from people on Facebook that I just didn't know.  This has happened to me before.  In the past I've just assumed they made a mistake, that they were trying to friend someone else, and ignored the request.  One of them listed someone I knew as a mutual friend.  When I spoke to this person he said, "I had no idea who they were.  I thought they were someone I'd met in Mongolia while with the Peace Corp and accepted.  It was after that I thought, 'Wait...  Who are you?'"
I sent the person a message.  It was straight forward.  "I've received a friend request from you, but I'm not sure I know you.  Have we met?"  
That person has since deleted the request.  It also looks like their page is gone.  At least, I can't get to it when I click on their name.  Maybe they just blocked me from reaching them.  Maybe they were just hoping to be accepted, if only because they asked.  
I don't know.  I will probably never know.  Just as I'll probably not learn anything more about the two dozen or so people around me than I know right now, that they live close enough to get to the library and that they probably have library cards.  That, and what I know about myself that applies to everyone else.  We're here.  We're trying to get "there."  It probably feels like it's very far away.  They are hoping to get help to get there.  
I usually go to see movies alone.  I've had people go, "Yew," when I say that, as if I had just admitted I was homeless.  Normally I don't mind.  
I did send a message to a friend who shares my tastes movies and books and such to see if he wanted to go see The Martian with me.  He's busy, unfortunately.  Stuff to do.  I get it.  
So, I guess I'll go by myself.  I'll find a seat down front, it's where I prefer to sit.  I'll get comfortable.  I make sure my cell phone is turned off as the lights go out.  The screen will fill my vision to secure the illusion that it's just me that's there watching it.  I'll let it transport me to someplace very far away. 
Maybe that's the best way to watch a film like this after all.