Tag Archives: memoir

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

336. The Little Ice Age

Hannes Grobe/AWI – own work – redrawn, supplemented and modified graphic from John S. Schlee (2000) Our changing continent, United States Geological Survey.

The writing of this blog is a pleasure, but it is like a fireplace on a deep winter’s day — it takes a lot of fuel. Sometimes topics fall into short supply. Sometimes I don’t know where my next blog is coming from.

Sometimes I get on the internet and put my conscious mind on cruise control. I let my fingers on the keyboard seek out half remembered images, phrases I have heard, interesting titles from catalogs of books I’ve never read, and half understood events I always meant to research and write about.

Today was that kind of day. I chased down, among other things, two similar phrases I had run across: The Year Without a Summer and The Little Ice Age.

They aren’t the same thing, it turns out. The Little Ice Age was a cool period that purportedly lasted about half a millennium, but its cause, degree, beginning, and ending are frustratingly difficult to pin down. NASA suggests three separate cooling periods in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s but the UN panel !PCC suggests that it is only a series of local events, not a unified world-wide phenomenon.

Locally, the increased cold brought famines, ice blockage of harbors, and shifts in agriculture. Some have suggested that the prevalence of winter scenes in Dutch paintings of the era, and even denser wood leading to better violins by Stradivarius, are byproducts of the Little Ice Age. Yeah, right. Scientists can be frivolously imaginative when pushing their theories, especially if proofs aren’t easily measured.

The Little Ice Age is a really cool name though, no pun intended, and it caught my attention because death by ice age was a common theme in the science fiction stories I read when I was young. Visions of glaciers coming down from the north to obliterate civilization lived in my head for years. They still do, sometimes.

Fifty years ago people — science fiction writers, anyway —  were afraid of global cooling. Now we are all afraid of global warming. That doesn’t set aside what we now know about retreating glaciers, but it does cause a slight pause on the way to full acceptance.

I was late coming to the table where global warming is concerned, for reasons that were entirely sensible twenty years ago, but no longer suffice today. I’m still not convinced that the warming is entirely man made, but it doesn’t matter. That the glaciers are retreating and the polar caps are disappearing is beyond question. That fossil fuel emissions are part of the picture is reason enough for action, even if we don’t know the whole story.

Science never knows the whole story, but people have to take action based on the preponderance of the evidence.


While I was cruising the web, I also found these estimates of human population.

     1804, Earth’s population, 1 billion.
     1927, Earth’s population, 2 billion.
     1960, Earth’s population, 3 billion.
     1974, Earth’s population, 4 billion.
     1987, Earth’s population, 5 billion.
     1999, Earth’s population, 6 billion.
      2011, Earth’s population, 7 billion.

I think there’s a pattern here, don’t you?

The answer to global warming isn’t an end to the use of fossil fuels — not exactly. It is an end to the need for fossil fuels. It is fewer people.

Oh, and that other thing, The Year Without a Summer, we’ll take a look at it tomorrow.

335. To Save a Life

I once saved a little girl’s life. True, but not as exciting as it sounds. I’ll tell you about it further down in the post.

In 1975, a whole bunch of things came together. I came back to California with a master’s degree and started writing novels. My wife’s parents lived in the same small city. Her father was a life long Red Cross volunteer, so when help was needed in the Swine Flu clinics, we all three volunteered. I had spent four years as a surgical tech in a Naval Hospital, so it was natural that I continued to volunteer after everybody had had their shots and the Swine Flue had not appeared.

(Cynics called the Swine Flu the cure for which there was no disease, but no one knew that at the time. Hindsight is always accurate, but sometimes cruel.)

About that time, the Red Cross was given the responsibility of teaching the then-new technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My wife, my father-in-law, and i took the county’s first CPR class one week, then took the first CPR teacher training the following week. After that we taught as a team.

At that time there were no EMTs. We taught the local ambulance drivers to do CPR, then my father-in-law taught the park rangers at the local lake. We taught civilian classes every week or so and after a few years, we had trained hundreds.

In those days CPR training included the Heimlich maneuver and many other things I won’t even tell you about. Year by year, the training contained less and less. Dumbed down, in my non-medical opinion. To be fair, we weren’t teaching doctors and nurses. The amount that you can expect a civilian to learn in a short class, and remember in an emergency a year later, has to be fairly well restricted.

When I wrote my second published novel, I had the hero save a life using CPR, and in the front pages, placed a statement about CPR with a call for the reader to get training.

I never had to actually use CPR. That just means that nobody ever dropped temporarily dead in my presence, and I’m glad they didn’t.

However . . .

About twenty years later I was teaching middle school. It was the end of the day. The bell had just rung and my students had started getting into their back packs to file out, when one of them yelled, “Suzy’s in trouble!” and another student yelled, “She’s choking.”

The girl (not named Suzy) had slipped a hard candy about the size and shape of a marble into her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to do that until she was outside the classroom, so she was being sneaky instead of careful, and it lodged in her windpipe.

I slipped into the mode teachers use for bleeding, fainting, and fist fights. I went to her at a walk that resembled a run. Her face was desperate. I spun her around and stripped off her backpack while calmly saying, “Let’s get this off you. Let’s get you turned around so I can get that out, so you can breathe.” I put my hands in the right position and jerked up sharply — but carefully, since I was three times her size. The candy shot across the room.

That was it. It was over. She was shaken, but unhurt.

Humility would have me say that she would probably have been all right anyway, but I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.

So, what is the takeaway — that I’m a hero? Not likely. People’s lives are saved every day by the Heimlich maneuver. I have a friend, a teacher, who used it successfully twice during her career.

The takeaway is that CPR, rescue breathing, and the Heimlich maneuver are easy to learn, and if you ever have the chance to same the life of a loved one, or even a stranger, and you don’t know how, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

End of sermon.

334. Making Videos for Cyan

I know from visiting your websites, that a lot, maybe most, of you either are or want to be writers. I’ve talked about some of the mechanics of that, especially in posts 133 and 134. During the last month, I’ve learned some more about how books are marketed in the age of the internet. I’ve had to make videos.

That proved harder than I thought it would, partly because of technology. Don’t think I’m a Luddite – I’ve been a computer nut since 1986 – but I don’t own a video camera. i don’t have kids to record as they grow, and I have no interest is seeing myself moving about on the computer screen.

Most of those who make videos to promote their books do so on their smart phones. I don’t have a smart phone. It is my firm belief that Alexander Graham Bell was an emissary of the Devil. I communicate the way God intended, by email, where I can correct my mistakes before I push send.

I finally used the camera built into my Mac. It makes a shaky, Skype-like picture, but that works well enough if you hold still and go into talking-head mode.

I didn’t want to ramble, so I wrote a script and tried out some videos. They stank (that’s the grammatically correct word that morphed into stunk about twenty years ago). It turns out that a glib, casual, conversational tone takes a hell of a lot of rewrites. I should have remembered that. I had to learn it two years ago when I wrote my first posts. I don’t mean numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .. I mean the ones you never saw because I trash-canned them.

Writing two masters theses and a bunch of novels did not prepare me to write posts. I had to learn a whole new, casual style. This month I learned that written-casual is not the same as spoken-casual — even if it is written as a script before it is spoken. It took quite a few tries to make the transition.

Eventually I made three videos for Brian at EDGE and he will put them on Youtube. They are an introduction to Cyan, the story of why I wrote Cyan, and a reading from Cyan. The first is already up; click here.

I’ve also tacked on the script I used in the Introduction to Cyan.


Hi. Welcome to my world, or at least to one of them. I’ve always been a fan of near future novels of exploration. There are so many things about traveling at sub-light speed that make for a great story.

Besides, it won’t be long until scientists have charted the actual planets around all the nearby stars. Then we won’t be able to make up our own planets.

Put those ideas together and you have Cyan, which is the name of me newest novel and the name of the planet that it takes place on.

In the year 2080 a crew of five men and five women, scientists all, set out for Procyon where they find a planet that stands straight up in orbit, with bands of unvarying climates. About 45 degrees north, is paradise.

But paradise with teeth — virgin, wild, beautiful, but very dangerous. Keir, our crewleader’s task is to keep his fellow explorers alive. He’s good at his job, but on a planet crowded with predators, that may not be enough.

For these scientists from vastly overcrowded earth, after years confined within the starship, the beauty and emptiness of Cyan is intoxicating.

They have one year to decide if Cyan is suitable for colonists, and it turns out to be perfect. But then one of the scientists picks up a flaked stone. This is not a natural occurrence. Someone, or some thing, has made it.

The explorers have discovered the Cyl.

The Cyl are a stone age group. They look nothing like man and their intelligence is low, but they are about to become much more. Evolution moves quickly under Procyon’s intense radiation, and the Cyl are poised to make the leap to full intelligence.

Earth needs Cyan to ease its massive population, and the Cyl need to be left alone to find their own destiny. Lines are drawn among the explorers and the resolution of the problem threatens to tear them apart.


When you get your copy of Cyan, you will see that this introduction actually only covers the first fifth of the novel. Giving a full summary would have made the video far too long.

333. Arthur C. Clarke: The Big Re-write

This is a follow-on to yesterday’s post.

There is an intellectual challenge in comparing Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night to his The City and the Stars. I could easily see someone writing a thesis in an English Literature program comparing the two in great detail. That would certainly make more sense that a thousandth thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses.

Clarke’s first version of the work, written, published, and praised, just wouldn’t let go of his mind. I get that; it happen to me twice. (The won’t let go part, not the published and praised part.) My second serious novel, Valley of the Menhir, came to me as a fragment and grew piecemeal over four decades. Cyan rolled along smoothly, and was almost finished (at about half it’s present length) when I ran into a problem I couldn’t solve without destroying the basic structure of the book. It sat in manuscript for years before I realized a way out of my dilemma.

Of course Against the Fall of Night was already out there, but the idea that a book could nag at a writer for years and finally cause a rewrite — even after it was published — makes perfect sense to me.

Truthfully, however, these two novels are the same story. Clarke would not agree, but I think he stood too close to both his works to judge. There are differences between the two, of course, and Clarke considered them significant. They don’t seem so to me.

In the introduction to Against the Fall of Night, Clarke said:

Between 1937 and 1946, at least five versions, of ever increasing length, were developed.

He also said this, which we already noted yesterday:

. . . undoubtedly, much of the emotional basis came from my transplantation from the country (Somerset) to the city (London), when I joined the British Civil Service in 1936. The conflict between a pastoral and an urban way of life has haunted me ever since.

Many people before Clarke had written to that theme without creating anything as lasting as the city Diaspar. Many people after Clarke recycled Diaspar, under many names in many novels. The movie Logan’s Run comes to mind. Yesterday I spent an hour in a local used bookstore and saw several forgettable (and actually forgotten) novels where the hero escapes from or is exiled from a sealed city and finds himself in a sylvan, or at least archaic, world.

I am glad to have reread The City and the Stars, and to have read Against the Fall of Night for the first time, but I don’t think I could recommend either to a modern audience. The writing style is not stilted, but it doesn’t sing. The premise is good, but a modern reader will have seen it already in a hundred novels published since mid-last-century. Finally, Clarke fails in his stated prime intention. He does not give a sense of deep time. When he says that some aspect of Diaspar has lasted a billion years, he could have said a thousand years instead, and the feeling would have been the same. I don’t fault him for this; I think the task was an impossible one. A thousand years or a billion years are both the same size when measured against the only yardstick that matters — “Longer than I will live.”

Diaspar, glorious as it is in Clarke’s description, had stood for billions of years and then was utterly changed by one young man is what appears to be about a year. Such an effortless transition has neither resonance nor believability. What Alvin does is powerful and meaningful, and Clarke’s creation of Diaspar, Lys, the Seven Suns, and Vanamonde is worthy of praise. But the changes that happen come too easily for full satisfaction as a novel.

Both versions of the story of Diaspar were great books for their time. Nevertheless, a modern reader encountering them today might shrug and say, “This is all old stuff. I’ve seen all this before.” He would not realize that these two novels, through their many imitators, are the reason the ideas seem familiar.

This all reminds me of Jekyll and Hyde. Almost no one has read the original, unless forced to in a literature class, but everyone knows the story. So which is great — the imitators everyone has seen, or the original everyone has forgotten?

332. Arthur C. Clarke: The Two Diaspars

In 1949, Arthur C. Clarke wrote his first novel Against the Fall of Night. Four years later, he rewrote it, and gave it a new title, The City and the Stars. Clarke himself said that only about 25% of the first novel resided in the second. My arithmetic doesn’t add up with his. I see them as much closer to each other than that; in some ways, barely different.

If you want details, go to the Wikipedia article on the latter novel. There is a section of comparison between the two books where the differences are laid out, but I find them superficial.

I read Against the Fall of Night for the first time this month. The City and the Stars, on the other hand, was one of the first proper science fiction novels of my childhood, and a major influence on me.

I read it soon after I found the local public library. Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton and dozens of lesser science fiction writers were suddenly available, where I had previously only had Tom Swift Jr. to read. About then I was probably reading three books a week, and at least half were extremely forgettable.

This would have been about 1960 or 1961, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Clarke was my main man then. That seems entirely appropriate; I was just really learning to think, and Clarke was all head. By the seventies, I couldn’t read him any more. His prose doesn’t sing and his characters have neither heart nor cojones. They weren’t quite wooden, but they were at least cloistered.

Actually, most of all, they were extremely British. And so are these two novels. Here is a quote:

Since that far-off day, Man had explored the Universe and returned again to Earth — had won an empire, and had it wrestled from his grasp. p. 97

That’s from The City and the Stars, the one I read as a child. At that time my understanding of the twentieth century was shallow indeed. Reading it again fifty-some years later, it is clear that the novel is largely a product of its time and place. Clarke had just moved from Somerset to London and found the transition difficult. Hence the contrast between Diaspar the uber-city and Lys the sylvan paradise. Both books revolve around the elegiac feeling of a time when mankind had forged a stellar empire and then withdrawn to Earth when (as his main character believes) they were driven back from what they had conquered.

World War II had just concluded. It had driven a stake through the heart of the British Empire. India won its independence in 1947, and the fifties saw one after another of the old colonies become new countries. At home in Britain, it was a time of deep austerities as the British tried do rebuild their nation out of the ruins of war. 

America suffered during the war; I do not disparage her losses, but no one bombed our cities to rubble, nor destroyed our economy. The fifties in Britain were not like the happy days of hot rods, tract housing, TV, freeways, and kitchen appliances.

Reading Against the Fall of Night or The City and the Stars today, as an adult aware of twentieth century history, that background informs my reading much as it surely informed Clarke’s writing. In both novels, the closed city of Diaspar is the last bastion of mankind in an Earth gone to desert, in a universe on which man has turned his back. Alvin, the hero, is mankind’s last hope of recovery from those great losses. more tomorrow

326. Dogwood Spring

The California dogwoods are in bloom. Today (March 20) my wife and I took a drive along our favorite semi-secret road to see them. The road isn’t really secret, nor even secluded, but it is off the beaten track. People who don’t live on it, rarely use it. We wound through twists and turns, admiring the green fields and placid cattle, down a steep trail to a hairpin curve at the bottom where a vernal creek rushes through a culvert.

In summer, this is a pool and a trickle, but it has been an exceptionally wet spring and the steep hill behind the pool now provides a double waterfall. We stopped. I admired the bounty of water while my wife took pictures of the dogwoods.

Just at the point where the pool empties into the culvert, there was a clump of grass, rooted in a crack in the rock, partially submerged in the rushing stream. You could see that it had only been growing a few weeks, and shortly the water will fall. When that happens, there will not be soil enough to support the clump, and it will die. But for now, the clump of grass was wiggling and tossing in the water, happy as a hummingbird.

This quatrain occurred to me as I watched.

Though the bee did not come,
And the fruit did not form,
            It does not follow
That the blossom lived in vain.

Like any natural poem, you could apply it to a number of situations. Any un- or under-published author will know what I mean.