My Time in the Collective

About four months ago, my primary care physician referred me to my cardiologist because he was routinely detecting premature ventricular contractions. When my cardiologist examined me six weeks ago, he ran an EKG and could detect none of these so-called PVCs. So, he decided I should wear a “Mobile Cardiac Outpatient Telemetry” monitor or MCOT for a month. The MCOT is a rechargeable sensor that plugs into a bandage with electrodes. The whole thing connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone that in turn sends data back to BioTelemetry, the company that makes the device. To be honest, I spent the month feeling like Jean-Luc Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they made him part of the Borg Collective.

August was a challenging month to wear this thing. Because I had traded shifts at Kitt Peak with a co-worker, I was scheduled to be there two weeks in a row. What’s more, that was the time I traveled to Bisbee for the Steampunk Invasion. A week after that, I traveled to Albuquerque for Bubonicon where I worked at the booth and spoke on panels.

The monitor I wore needed to be recharged every five days. When that happened, I removed the electrode bandage, shaved that part of my chest anew, and put on a new bandage. A bigger logistical challenge was the monitor’s requirement to stay in cell phone connection with BioTelemetry. This was the part that really made me feel like part of the “collective.”

It never ceases to amaze me how much it’s now taken for granted that we will always be in cell phone communication range. The problem is, I work on a remote observatory with radio telescopes. We don’t have cell towers close to the observatory because they interfere with radio observations. We do have some limited WiFi capability now, but the MCOT monitor didn’t give me the option of utilizing that. So, I got to spend much of my two weeks finding places where I could get it to connect to its data server and transmit its data before the phone complained at me that I had been out of cell range for too long.

The most emotionally challenging part of wearing this monitor when I did was that it happened right around the time I reached the very same age my dad was when he died of heart disease.

While wearing the monitor, I got to learn how far these devices have come in the last fifteen or so years. One of my co-workers had to wear an early version of a cardiac monitor when she was a child and the whole thing was like a body suit. I imagine she felt even more like a member of the Borg Collective when she wore it than when I did!

Earlier this week, I learned the results of the monitoring. In short, I do seem to have the occasional premature ventricular contraction. They seem to occur most often when I’m under stress. This would imply that my primary care doctor is more stressful for me to visit than my cardiologist! By themselves, at the rate they occur for me, PVCs are not especially dangerous. I did learn by paying attention and comparing notes with my cardiologist how to recognize them, so I can alert a doctor if I notice their rate increase or become more severe. The experience of speaking to my co-worker about her cardiac monitor experience reminds me how far heart care really has come in the last few decades.

Still, I’m glad to be free of the collective and hope I don’t get assimilated again any time in the near future.

Of course, paying attention to technology like this helps me think about technological change as I write my science fiction and my science fiction-infused steampunk. If you find this blog of interest or just want to help support my writing endeavors, I encourage you to support my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

One Day Older…

At the very end of September in 1980, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I remember waking up to a voice calling out. I followed the voice from my bedroom to the living room, where I found my dad on the couch, calling for my mom, who was sound asleep. He told me he thought he was having a heart attack. I ran in and woke my mom who called the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my brothers and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. I just remember being in a hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and talked to us. My dad hadn’t lived to see another sunrise.

As of this morning, I’m one day older than my dad ever was. I find myself thinking of all the things he was and all the things he did. He was a general foreman for the Santa Fe railroad, a lifelong Boy Scout leader, a talented painter, and a model railroad hobbyist who made sure the toy trains were as accurate as he could make them. He was a Marine at the end of World War II, a church elder, and a Mason. From him, I gained a love of history, nature, genealogy, and so much more. Now that I’m one day older than he ever was, I find myself wondering what he would think of the man I became.

This last year during the DESI installation at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing a hard hat at work. My dad almost always wore his hard hat at work. While it’s a superficial comparison, the image of him in his hard hat is indelibly burned into my memory. I know he would find the observatory fascinating and would love to see behind the scenes of everything we do, just as he enjoyed giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Santa Fe shops in San Bernardino, California. I suspect he’d be mystified by my love of science fiction but interested in how I play with “what if” questions in my alternate history. I know my dad would be proud of my daughters and interested in the things they’ve accomplished.

The date of my dad’s death has hung over me like a specter these last four decades. The rational part of my mind has known that barring accidents, there’s no particular reason I wouldn’t outlive my dad. Then again, doctors talking genetics have a way of keeping his early demise closer to the forefront of my mind than I would like. I’ve often felt the urge to accomplish as much as I can before this date, to assure that if I died young, I would have lived as full a life as possible. I’m glad I’ve made it to this point and I’m glad I have more life to live to share with my friends and loved ones. I know life is finite and I have no idea how much longer I have. What I do know is that the rest of my life is an open book and I plan to fill the pages with as much fun, action, and wonder as I possibly can.

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.

A Culture of Outrage

Last Friday, I was browsing the web and I read a headline about a group being outraged at a public person’s words. I found myself thinking the person’s words weren’t the brightest, but I wasn’t quite sure they warranted “outrage.” Then I noticed another headline about people being outraged at something else and then there was another headline about outrage. I made an offhand comment to my wife that it’s no wonder with all this outrage that certain frustrated young men who don’t handle their emotions well start shooting people. The only emotion that seems to get validation by politicians and the media is outrage. Little did I know that in less than 24 hours, a young man would open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, not all that far from where I live.

It may not be altogether clear from the map, but the borderland communities of Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico are pretty tight knit. I used to do contract work for El Paso Community College and spent some of my time at the Valle Verde Campus not far from the Walmart where the shooting took place. I go to El Paso from time to time to see movies and, of course, I’ve been a guest author at El Paso Comic Con a few times. El Paso is also a safe town in this modern world. More people were killed in Saturday’s mass shooting than in the twelve months before that. These are people I consider my neighbors and this tragedy saddens me.

I know many are outraged in the wake of these events and I have my moments of outrage as well. Already there is renewed talk of gun control and that has triggered the outrage of gun control advocates. I fear that all this will go nowhere as it has in the wake of so many recent incidents. The challenge is that people need to move beyond the outrage and actually talk compromise and think about creative solutions. People need to understand what causes a person to take such hate-filled action as opening fire on families in a store, shopping for school supplies, then discourage that from happening.

It seems that the shooting in El Paso was fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric. This rhetoric is poisonous nonsense. I’ve recently been looking into my own family’s history. As far as I can tell, every one of my ancestors was in this country before 1800. The current President of the United States is the grandson of immigrants who came in 1885. From my family’s perspective, his family looks no different than those coming across the border today. I know that from the perspective of Native Americans, my family looks no different than any other immigrants.

This brings us back to the culture of outrage. Outrage is a momentary reaction. News reporters like it because it’s a raw emotion and it draws people to the narrative being told. Politicians like it because it keeps votes rolling in as they stoke the fires. However, outrage is only sustained by finding a new outrage. Eventually, the old outrage drains away as the families of the victims mourn and find ways to move forward after their losses. Instead of looking for new outrages, we need to actually talk to each other about possible solutions and find ways to implement them. In that way, we may just stand a chance of breaking out of the culture of outrage.

The Last Apollo

My wife and I spent two weeks in July on the road. We paid a visit to my older daughter in Kansas City and then visited some colleges that my younger daughter is considering after she graduates from high school in the spring. On the way to Kansas City, we stopped in to visit my wife’s aunt in Hutchinson, Kansas. While there, she took us to see the Cosmosphere.

As interested as I am in space exploration, it may come as a surprise that I’d never heard of this place. It turns out the Cosmosphere houses the world’s largest combined exhibition of US and Russian space vehicles anywhere in the world. As I understand, the Cosmosphere grew from a planetarium established on the Kansas State fairgrounds in 1962. It houses artifacts from Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, Russian Vostok and Vokhod space capsules and the Odyssey command module from Apollo 13. It also has the training mock-up for the last Apollo flight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

This mission holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. As I mentioned in my post on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I was too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around on the moon live, but I did sit glued to the television set watching the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the famous handshake in space between American Thomas P. Stafford and Russian Alexei Leonov.

One element of this mission that fascinated me was that after years of hearing about the famous “space race” between the Americans and the Russians, this was the first time I’d had a chance to really see pictures of a Soyuz space capsule. It was so different from the American craft and it was green! It was the first time I could remember seeing a spaceship that wasn’t white, gray, or silver.

The project would lay the foundation for the working relationship that would ultimately lead to projects like the International Space Station. In fact, to this day, Soyuz space craft are still the workhorses that take people to and from the space station. I recently learned that during training for the project and during the mission itself, all the Americans spoke Russian while all the Soviet cosmonauts spoke English.

In later life, I’ve come to appreciate astronaut Deke Slayton’s story from this mission. Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, immortalized in the movie, The Right Stuff. However, Slayton was grounded and never flew during the Mercury program because of an abnormal heart rhythm. As I understand, his condition is not dissimilar from my own. Slayton went on to become a manager of the senior manager of NASA’s astronaut office. Watching footage from Apollo 11, we see Deke Slayton helping Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins aboard their famous flight. At long last, Slayton was cleared for flight status in the 1970s and the Apollo-Soyuz test project was his chance to go to space.

Soon after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project I enrolled in a model of the month club. The company would send you a new model every month to build. One of the models I remember depicted the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in space. I hurried through the build, excited to make it. I remember globbing on paint and glue. Even my peers at the time said I did a terrible job. The model was ultimately lost to time. After returning home from our travels, I discovered an old kit of that model for sale online. I bought it for old time’s sake and put it together much more carefully. I even took extra care to make sure I matched the colors to what I saw in the Cosmosphere as best as I could.

This model is a keeper. Apollo-Soyuz reminds me that first steps toward cooperation can build dividends in the long run. It reminds me of Deke Slayton and that he would eventually overcome a health problem that grounded him. It reminds me of a visit to a cool museum with my family. The model itself reminds me that you can fail the first time you try something and then be satisfied when you learn from your mistakes and try again.

Setting Mini-Goals

Earlier this week, I received a question here at the Web Journal about how I manage to post so frequently. I gave an answer in the comments, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought a little more insight into my time management process might prove helpful to some people. What’s more, talking about goals seems timely with high school and college graduation season upon us. Of course most commencement speakers raising the subject of goals will likely talk about long-term career or personal development goals. They may talk about goals for the next year or two. What I’d like to discuss are how I turn those longer term goals into more manageable daily goals.

Three of my goals for this year are to revise my novel The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release, edit the novel Battle Lines by Greg Ballan, and post an update to my blog every Saturday and Tuesday. These aren’t my only goals for the year, but these are three projects I’m working on right now.

The first thing that helps me turn a big yearly goal into a more manageable weekly or daily goal is to set deadlines. Deadlines for the blog posts are defined by the fact they have to go live by Saturday or Tuesday morning. Fortunately, WordPress lets me write posts in advance and schedule them. This allows me more flexibility for when I actually write my posts as long as they are written before the deadline.

Deadlines for The Pirates of Sufiro are defined by my promise to my Patreon subscribers that I will deliver at least one revised chapter every month. I know it takes about three to four days to revise a chapter at a nice, easy pace that also allows me to answer email, take a walk, and spend time with my family. By contrast, I only have one “hard” deadline for Battle Lines and that’s the fact that I want it out by November so it’s available at our dealer’s table at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention and available for holiday orders.

In effect, these three goals form part of a to-do list. Other things that go on the to-do list might include daily chores like making dinner, taking out the trash, answering email, or paying bills. With the to-do list in hand, what I do most mornings is to ask myself a question: What do I need to accomplish to make this day a success? The answer will be a list of mini-goals. These may be simple “to-do” items like: mow the grass, write a blog post, make dinner, and take a walk. It could be: revise two scenes of The Pirates of Sufiro, take my daughter out to practice driving, and review a presentation for the next convention. When I look at a project like Battle Lines, I may see how many days I have in the next two to three weeks to devote to editing, then simply divide up the pages among them, so that I have a manageable chunk to edit every day. The specifics are as individual to you as they are to me. The important part is to set manageable mini-goals for myself each day that help me move toward the larger goals.

I like to reward myself when I reach my goals for the day. A typical reward might be to watch a movie from my collection, or read a couple chapters from a book. If I reach a milestone, the family and I might go out to dinner. When I don’t reach my goals, I try not to let disappointment get me down. After all, life happens and sometimes something demands my attention that I didn’t plan for such as a flat tire or an unexpected, urgent email. If I didn’t meet my goals, I try to look back at the day objectively. Did I set too many mini-goals? Did something unavoidable happen? If it’s the latter, I may start my list over again the next day.

If you have any additional tips for organizing your time, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

If you want to check out my Patreon site, it’s at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. As I say, if you pledge a dollar each month, you’ll get to read each new chapter of The Pirates of Sufiro as its revised. What’s more, another goal I’ve set is to remove the ads from this blog. Your support at my Patreon site can help to make that happen.