Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Floods of Felsenthal -- a poem by Grace Wagner

Grace Wagner

The Floods of Floods of Felsenthal

Every November, so says my father, the floods follow the ducks to
blue-wing teals, mallards, black ducks and gadwalls,
They gather in covens and bring the rain
which soaks the shallow roots of the loblollys
who stand evergreen over the pine-needle stratum; the rain
which gluts the earth till it brims and breaks, flooding
until it fills the basin of itself; the rain
which gives new roads to the fish, crawpie and walleye, largemouth bass
basking beneath the pine-filtered light of dawn.

As the water follows the birds, so my father follows the water.
He takes me out on its face, breaking
the water's waiting tension with the prow of our canoe.
Here two months ago my grandfather stayed, camped close.
But the flood takes it all, swallowing campsites and parking lots, slow
Southern apocalypse meandering in oxbows and bottom lands,
gathering itself in sloughs and buttonbush swamps.

Now the loblolly pines grow from water.
A small hill rises artificially high, bearing the weight of man-
made brick and mortar, restrooms for the campgrounds
when the ground was still visible.
My father sits in front of me, back to the trees,
rowing us through their shining corridors.
We say nothing and the nothing echoes
back to us across the water.

I look over the edge but cannot see
the ground only three feet below me.
The water shows me the sky and pine-lace.
I look up and see the same vision, sky and trees,
a perfect mirror of the water.
The light ripples as I move
beneath it, concentric circles radiating
from the centermost point of my eyes;
mandala in pine and sky.

The ducks watch us, augurs with webbed feet
sculling beneath the polished surface,
their buoyant bodies swiveling
to watch us pass.
They know we are not here for them.
They know the rain will soak and sink 
into the land, damp leaves left like carpet
after a hurricane.
They know my father will die
some day and that I will follow him.

A tackle box sits at my feet, but my father does not
open it. Does not pull out the assemblage of jigs,
of spinners and spoons and flies.
The buzzbaits sit unsummoned, sullen
in their rubber skirts.
Today my father does not pull out the rod
or the reel.

He rows
in silence through the trees,
knowing as I know
that nothing
needs to be said.

This is one of nine poems by Grace Wagner published in the Spring 2017 issue of Skidmore College's Literary Journal, Salmagundi Magazine

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Luka and Danna

Luka and Danna, a scene from Dead and Gone,
a work again in progress

Luka touched the blade against his beautiful Danna’s throat and held his breath.

Born outside convention, his mother gave him as much as she could. She gave him the Gathering and Galen, the physician, the teacher. Not his father. She’d not given him any father at all. But Galen delivered him and eased his mother through her last agonies and out of this world.

Danna would not be put through that pain. He would see to that. Nor would he let her suffer her father’s bigotry.

Dr. Porter was insane. What kind of man would kill his own grandchild? No matter how “normal” it might be. There was no reason to believe that this baby would be “less than” in any way. It might tend back toward the norm, yes. But not necessarily anything less than Level I.

Luka measured Level I both mentally and physically. His IQ in the high 130s. He stood a little shorter than the norm for the Martian Colonies, but on a par with Earth-born. Danna was off the charts. She was the product of her father’s research, his amalgamation of the best available genetic material. The result of her father’s ambition. And now she had defied the man.

Luka loved her and she was carrying his child – Luka's child, not the great Dr. Porter’s engineered child.

Kneeling on the bank of a rushing creek, her head bowed, Danna held her dark hair back with her right hand and waited. She had wiped her car’s memory and destroyed her mobile.

Across the creek a green swath of grass defied the late snow. Both held in early morning shadow. The sun glowed against the top of the cliff face rising high above them.

Luka let go his breath. A thin red line followed the blade. The blade so sharp that she felt nothing. He applied pressure to the small cut just below her left ear. A chip, smaller than a grain of rice popped out into his hand. This was the last link between Danna and her father.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lampedusa -- a Review

Lampedusa is an excellent 2016 two-part Italian mini-series starring Claudio Amendola as Coast Guard Commander Marco Serra and Carolina Crescentini as Viola the administrator of a refugee reception center.

This production gives human faces to the unimaginable numbers of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in dangerously inadequate water craft and to the people who try to help them.

Commander Serra is just the kind of fiercely independent hero, we love and the military brass hates. He trusts and supports his crew doing the thankless, but courageous job of saving refugees even if it means bucking orders. And sometimes saving local fishermen from an aggressive Libyan navy who tries to confiscate their boat, their only source of livelihood. (Somehow, it never occurred to me to be concerned about Italian fishermen in the Mediterranean. But of course their work can take them off the coast of the Libya, the same Libya of the infamous Benghazi attack in 2012.)

And Viola has the equally thankless and courageous job of welcoming destitute people and then trying to provide for them until they can be relocated to a more permanent encampment on the mainland. Depending on insufficient funding from the Italian government and the sporadic beneficence of the world at large, she must provide food, shelter, medical care, etc., etc., etc. to these needy people.

Commander Serra rescues a young boy Daki from the sea. He turns Daki over to Viola. Neither of them know that Daki's mother and younger sister were left in Libya until she can manage to get them on another boat to Italy.

All this in the midst of the Lampedusa community, a community with its own needs and concerns. That community is divided between those who have historically welcomed and helped people coming through in search of a better life and those who want to protect their way of life on the island.

Lampedusa's economy depends on fishing, agriculture, and tourism. Just like the real island, some of the people in this drama depend on tourism for their daily bread. And getting people to come to a beautiful island for their holidays when their enjoyment may be disrupted by bodies in various states of decomposition washed up on the beautiful beaches. Or the swim-with-dolphins excursion interrupted by a distress call from a vessel sinking with too many souls needing rescue. For them the refugees are not welcome at all, not even temporarily.

This is a fictional account of the altogether too real circumstances of Lampedusa. As the European territory closest to Libya, it has become a prime transit point for irregular immigrants wanting to enter Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It is an Italian island 127 miles southwest of Sicily. In point of fact it is closer to Libya than it is to Italy.

According to Wikipedia, Lampedusa has an area of about 7.8 square miles and a population of about 6,000 people. We are talking an island just a little more than one-half the size of Liberty Island, the home of the Statue of Liberty. And a population of about the same size as Flathead, Montana. Ever heard of it? Me, neither. Other than being in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, I doubt the two communities have much in common.

According to the UN Refugee Agency more than 150,000 refugees made the crossing between Libya and Italy with the likelihood of dying during the attempt at one death for every 47 arrivals. Can you imagine your little community of 6,000 hosting an influx of that many people for whatever short interval of time until they can move on to what they hope will be a better life.

How bad must the circumstances be for a woman to take her eight- and ten-year-old children to a country where she's never been and where she does not speak the language? On foot, many miles across hostile, unforgiving land. Then unable to all get on a questionable boat to cross the sea, she chooses to send her ten-year-old alone. She knows many people have died trying to make that crossing, but she sees the danger as less than the danger of waiting until they can all go. She sees the opportunities for him as greater than the risk. That is not only Daki's fictional story, but the real story of real people.

What do I know about refugees or, for that matter, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea? I live in Colorado. Our economy comes from the supersectors of natural resources and construction, leisure and hospitality, and education and health services. The federal government is a major economic force with military bases and offices and labs connected to all the government agencies.

Colorado has abundant National Forest land and four National Parks that draw millions of tourists every year. It is notable for its concentration of scientific research and high-technology industries. Other industries include food processing, transportation equipment, the production of machinery and chemical products, and the mining of metals such as gold, silver, and molybdenum.

Instead of the beautiful sea and sky that Lampedusa enjoys, we have the mountains and sky. Colorado now also has the largest annual production of beer of any state. Denver is an important financial center. It is home to professional sports teams from Roller Derby to Rugby and Lacrosse and includes ice hockey, soccer, and all the regulars like football, baseball, and basketball. What "white privilege?" We have "Colorado privilege."

Lampedusa the TV mini-series brings to us a visceral sense of these people's reality in a way that we can kind of begin to actually understand them.

The only access to this production that I know of is Amazon MHz. I don't know what that is, but it's out there. I just happened onto the mini-series on our local International Mysteries channel. It is worth looking for.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Y and Z -- thus endeth the 2017 A to Z April Blogging Challenge

 My daughter says I am the most anti-authoritarian person she knows. And she could be right, though of course I don't know everyone she knows nor do I know their standing on the conformity/rebellion continuum.

The unlikelihood that I will read written instructions, my standard noncompliance to verbal commands, and my uncommon reactions to people with celebrity status may be evidence for her thinking that.

These two common traffic signs are excellent examples. 

The No Left Turn sign causes me to exercise the most stringent self-control. It seems my car's steering wheel almost turns left of its own accord whether I have any reason to turn left or not.  

 And the No Parking. It goes without saying that I invariably apply the brakes even though there's nothing that interests me within walking distance of the sign. 

This could explain why I have run out of the inspiration to follow the rules for the 2017 A to Z April Blogging Challenge and have generally messed up this last week. 

To be fair, though, I don't really agree with our English alphabet's order. I mean little things like "U, V, W." Now, if you'll compare that with the Spanish alphabet, you'll see that it's out of order. In English, the Spanish V is pronounced "vay" and the W which is obviously the V doubled is pronounced "dobla-vay." So why would we separate the "yoo" from "double-yoo" which looks like a "double-vee" with the single "vee?"

Then there's the geography of the United States -- Why in the world is Indiana east of Illinois? Ahhh, but that's a whole 'nother question.

There are traffic signs that I do pay attention to like these. I live at the foot of the foothills to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and when I'm driving in the mountains these signs mean slow down, gear down, and prepare for your heart to constrict in fear.


And when we're in Rocky Mountain National Park this is my favorite sign. 

Actually it means "slow down," too. But for an altogether different reason. It means the cars ahead of you will all be stopped and the people will be out of their cars taking pictures. -- Me, too. See, sometimes I conform.

And if you see this sign, it probably means you've taken a
wrong turn and ended up in Dallas, Texas.

Although there are no hills that look like this near Dallas.
But there are lots of nice folks and they will gladly give you directions if you get lost -- speaking from personal experience.

What? No Y or Z topic? Oh, well. Maybe I'll do better at conforming to the recommended letters for the daily blog next year. In the meantime I'll be visiting some of your wonderful blogs that I've become aware of because of this year's A to Z.

Enjoy the rest of this blogging year and write on.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

X's -- Flash Fiction

image from The Omniscient Mussel

Pulling away in a maroon Chrysler Pacifica, she gave him a thumbs up and smiled. Damn. Thirteen minutes late. Mike said she had to be at the airport.

It must be an Uber, Jen drove a little yellow Honda Fit. What kind of name is that for a car? A three-year-old pitches a fit when he doesn't get his way. A hissy fit not a Honda fit. Mike said his Southern was showing when he talked like that. Mike'd say the same thing about his being late.

He called Mike. "Missed her."

"I know. She called. Not a problem." But he didn't sound too happy. "Don't screw this up. There's a key in one of those fake rocks. Under the lilac."

"Okay. Do you know where she left it?"

"She left you a note on the fridge." He didn't sound happy at all.


"Gotta get it to them before seven tonight or the deal's off." He sounded angry.

Mike was not a good man to cross. He didn't know what Mike's deal was, but he was smart enough not to ask. None of his business. He just needed to find the money, and he had no idea what a lilac looked like. He could find a fake rock.

Once inside the house he found the note. As it turned out, one among many items on the fridge. A conversion chart for cooking measurements -- teaspoons to tablespoon, cups to pints, etc. Crayon art. A coupon for Blue Belle ice cream. He didn't know they'd started selling that again. Maybe he'd pick up a half gallon.

There was a handwritten list. It had ten items with an X marked in front of three of them -- pink make-up bag, (that notation had a red line through it,) Baking for Dummies, pg 73, and  dog treats. Jamaica Blue Mountain was scrawled in pencil along the side.

Do you suppose she broke it up? Really not a bad idea. Maybe it wouldn't all be lost at once.

X must mark the spot. Okay. He knew what he was looking for -- two packets of one hundred $100 bills each.

He found the cook book on the second shelf of the book shelves at the end of the kitchen counter. No money. The dog treat box was in the pantry. Just dog treats. He couldn't find the pink make-up bag.

"X, my eye. Mike's gonna X me out," he muttered. He pulled out his phone. Maybe he should call Mike. Then again, maybe he'd better do some more looking.

What the hell did Jamaican geography have to do with anything? He googled "Jamaica Blue Mountain." Coffee?

Where would Jen keep coffee? Not in the pantry. The cabinet over the coffee maker? Nope. The freezer?

The freezer, yes! And, guess what, "X" doesn't mean a thing. $20,000, however, fits very neatly into a one pound coffee bag. Smells pretty good, too.

Now, if he just didn't get caught in traffic.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

U, V, and W -- Nonfiction

W Is for Writer 

I am a writer. I have one novel in print Murder on Ceres. It is available from Amazon as both a paper back and on Kindle. And I'm currently working on the next in what I plan to be a series of four.

At some point several years ago I decided to do what I've always wanted to do -- write a book.

Although my fiction reading is eclectic (some would say indiscriminate) my fiction goto's seem to be murder mysteries and hard science fiction. So I wrote a science fiction/murder mystery or maybe it's a murder mystery/science fiction like I would like to read. The story is set in the future when civilization is centered in the Mars colonies and Earth is truly the "old country" but humans are still humans and murder happens.

"Balancing the demands of his job and his responsibilities to his family, Rafe investigates the suspicious death of a Ceres Colony Consortium accountant. Suicide? Overdose? Homicide? Not his upcoming trip to Earth, not his independent and fiery wife, nothing will keep him from the case.

"Through a whirlwind of illicit drugs, space pirates, and secret identities, Detective Rafe Sirocco chases the truth all 266,000,000 miles from the shining cylinder of Ceres Colony to the alien landscapes of Earth. But will he make it in time to save the one person that matters to him most?"

My nonfiction reading is equally eclectic -- Stephen J. Gould, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (yes, they wrote nonfiction which I actually like better than their fiction.) David McCullough, Carl Sandburg (his Lincoln and his poetry,) Maya Angelou, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, etc., etc., etc.

If I had written a U-blog, it would have been about the Universe just because it is so beautiful and I could use pictures from the NASA/ESA Hubble telescope like this one.

Close-up of M27, the Dumbbell Nebula

Their name for this photo. Imagine calling this a "close-up."  It is more than 1,200 light-years away. A light year is the distance light can travel in one Earth year which is nearly 6 trillion miles. Now multiply that time 1,200 and this is a close-up.  This glorious display of color is the result of an old star that has shed its outer layers. Discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1764, a dozen years before the Revolutionary War, it was the first planetary nebula discovered.

And had I done V-day, it could have been Voyager 1. On September 12, 2013, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that Voyager 1 had indeed left our Solar System and entered interstellar space. Where is it today? Click here for a real-time odometer of Voyager 1's distance from the Earth and the Sun in astronomical units (AU) and kilometers (km).

Better yet, The Golden Record.

It is "a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record-a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth."



Monday, April 24, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Thomas -- Creator and Writer of Call the Midwife

Heidi Thomas 

Ms. Thomas created and writes Call the Midwife, now in its 6th season airing on PBS.

I have no scientific studies to back me up nor am I credentialed in any form of psychology, but I believe that the most effective way to change a culture is through arts and entertainment. And within the arts and entertainment world, TV is the most likely to reach the most people.

I know you're thinking not PBS, you won't. And that's probably true. BUT Downton Abbey certainly did reach a huge audience. The first five seasons of Call the Midwife are available on Netflix with the sixth season most likely to be available on Netflix early next year, so it is easily available to a vast audience. By-the-bye, if you're interested in watching now but have missed the first five seasons, you could catch up on Netflix then watch the sixth on PBS online.

Call the Midwife is set in Poplar, a fictional district in London's East End. My first knowledge of the East End was from The People of the Abyss, Jack London's nonfiction account of the year he lived there -- 1902. The conditions then were like those in the worst of America's ghettos. Poverty, disease, violence, alcoholism, drugs, lack of education, substandard housing and/or homelessness.

By the late 1950's when Call the Midwife starts, poverty and all its attendant ills still thrived there and the people were dependent on charitable organizations for many services, including medical care. The first season recounts the experiences of Jenny Lee, a newly trained midwife based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a real midwife who worked with an Anglican nursing order of nuns.

The characters are about evenly split between the sisters of Nonnatus House convent and the trained midwives who work for them. Most of the deliveries are made in the local women's homes, but over the years Nonnatus did open a small maternity hospital in Poplar.

Okay, with all this history of the mythical Nonnatus House, this is what I wanted to talk about.

We are buffeted and pummeled and generally knocked about by strident would-be tyrants who think they can convert us to their point of view with angry voices and defamatory pronouncements against their critics.

Someone once told me "the louder the voice, the weaker the argument."

In Season 6, Episode 3, Ms. Thomas has written what is, in my opinion the perfect example of this truth. There are no car chase scenes. No explosions. No gun, knife, or profane verbal fights. But the tension is palpable. And all the conflict any writing instructor asks for -- internal, interpersonal, and external.

Spoiler Alert!

Sister Ursula, the new autocratic Sister in Charge of Nonnatus House, continues to make changes in the way things are done there including plans to send Sister Monica Joan to the Mother House because she has dementia and, after all everyone must earn their position at Nonnatus House. Sister Julienne who has always effectively run Nonnatus House with understanding and tolerance is hobbled by her vow of obedience and will not question Sister Ursula's tyranny. Humanity vs. efficiency.

A young, part-Chinese, first time mother has to deal with her overbearing Chinese mother-in-law. Cultural traditions clash.

And the Maternity Home is being inspected by a government bureaucrat working with the Health Ministry to close neighborhood maternity homes in favor of larger hospitals. Better care vs. cost effectiveness.

Sister Ursula has mandated that each midwife is to take no more than 20 minutes with each patient so they can see more patients. Mrs. Chen wants her daughter-in-law kept in a stifling, closed room both before and after the baby is born without regard for the young woman's comfort. The bureaucrat is courteous but unimpressed with the maternity home's clean, professional, accessible facilities noting "all this for only four beds." The District Doctor explains that the people in the neighborhood have no transportation other than the bus to get to a hospital or doctor's visits, so maternity care in their own home or a local maternity home are their only reasonable options.

Sister Ursula's enforced time limitation causes one of the midwives to fail to pursue the new mother's and baby's discomfort and fairly mild symptoms. Mrs. Chen's insistence on keeping the room closed tight and the heater on, causes the baby to lose consciousness due to carbon monoxide poisoning. At which point she grabs up the baby and runs to the maternity home for help.

Where the government inspection is interrupted by the emergency and observes the prompt, effective solution of sending the baby and mother-in-law by ambulance to a regular hospital and the doctor and a midwife decamp to the substandard home to care for the new mother.

-- My down and dirty description of the action doesn't begin to convey the tension that I felt while all this was going on. Ms. Thomas' writing in no way spoonfed the audience or belabored explanations. She trusted us to recognize what was going on. To understand. --

The rest of the inspection is done with the bureaucrat accompanied by our beloved, but no-nonsense, plainspoken Nurse Phyllis. He's convinced that the maternity home should not be shut down yet, but, not unsympathetically notes that the shut down is inevitable sometime within the next several years. Times are changing.

Then Nurse Phyllis explains to Sister Ursula that her time limitation was unrealistic and led to the midwife not recognizing the dangerous situation of the Chen family.

The baby and new mother survive and Mrs. Chen explains that she was pregnant when she and the rest of her family had to flee during the Japanese invasion of their city. She had her baby on the road and had no way to keep it dry and warm. It died. She had only been trying to protect her grandchild.

-- By now I was in tears. Not just because Mrs. Chen had had her baby and lost it because she was driven from her home by war, but because women all over the world are still having babies and losing them because of war. --

Sister Julienne listens nonjudgmentally to Sister Ursula and joins her in prayer. Sister Ursula sees the error of her ways, apologizes to Sister Julienne, and leaves to return to the Mother House. Sister Monica Joan gives her a sweet and advises that too much penitence is prideful and even a penitent must eat. And Nurse Phyllis offers to drive her to the station. All to show that Sister Ursula is completely forgiven by those at Nonnatus House.

Humanity vs. efficiency. Cultural traditions clash. Better care vs. cost effectiveness.

All is not well no matter how well this particular episode ended. Times do need to change. Without car chases, explosions, and fights.

And this is a heartfelt thank you to Ms. Thomas for her showing us how.