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.

Tending to Busy-ness

I read an interesting article on the New York Times website about a week and a half ago that suggested that being perpetually busy has become something of a status symbol. I can see that. I know a lot of successful and ambitious people and judging from our conversations and their social media feeds, they are in demand and on the go and they like to talk about how they are in demand and on the go. The article also suggests that there’s a danger in people becoming too busy, that we need to allow some idleness to creep into our lives. As someone who has two careers, one in astronomy and one in writing, the article definitely spoke to me.

Presenting a talk at the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces

I see this attitude of equating busy-ness with status and success starting in school days. My daughters were and are encouraged to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, partly with the justification that listing them on college applications would make them more appealing to those institutions. For that matter, I was told much the same thing back in the days when I applied for college.

I feel like this attitude of busy-ness being a status symbol is easily exploited by the powers that be. I won’t go so far as to say there has been any kind of conspiracy on the part of business owners to make this environment happen, but the powers that be are often quite adept at exploiting and encouraging trends that function to their benefit. After all, if being busy is a status symbol, it makes it easier for an employer to ask an employee to take a larger work load for no added benefit, other than the benefit of the status the employee gains from being busier. In all fairness, there can be benefit from this, a busier-looking employee might be the one looked at first for promotion, as long as that busy-ness produces results and is recognized.

The New York Times article extolled the virtues of idleness. It suggested that true idle time where are thoughts are not directed are important to both creativity and productivity and we are in some danger of not allowing ourselves enough idle time. I would certainly agree that when I don’t take enough idle time for myself, I have a hard time coming up with ideas for my writing or being at my best on my astronomy job. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of getting eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle (at least as close to eight hours as my work life allows. That can be a challenge at the observatory in winter!) I also find it’s important to have quiet time each day just to let my mind wander and daydream. When the weather’s cooperative, I often combine this with a walk through my neighborhood. This way my mind not only gets some idle time, but I’m doing something healthy as well! At any rate, these daydreams often lead me to story ideas. About the time I’ve become bored with the wanderings, is about the time I feel compelled to sit down at the keyboard and write.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was writing The Pirates of Sufiro, and before being busy was a status symbol in its own right, I wrote a scene where Manuel Raton, the son of a farmer and a bit of a dreamer, was speaking to Sam Stone who aspired to be a powerful businessman. Manuel chided Sam for not taking enough time to relax and explore the world around him. He said he didn’t want to turn into the kind of person who was all work and no play. Somehow that seems like it’s become a timely scene. That’s one of the reasons I’m working on a new edition of the novel. If you want to see the updated chapters as they’re rewritten and also help me reach the goal of making this an ad-free blog, you can support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

2019 Storms In

I spent New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak National Observatory as a snow storm blew over the mountaintop. Operations are scheduled at the observatory every night of the year except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, we have staff on the mountain during the holiday to service the instruments and keep an eye on the site. My job requires that I be at the telescope even during inclement weather. That’s partly because the weather is capricious and we need to be available in case the weather unexpectedly clears. I also need to service the instruments and I’m also the guy who calls the Arizona Department of Transportation to let them know how much snow they can expect at the top of Highway 386, which is the highway that leads to the top of the mountain.

Partly because I was working and partly because Kitt Peak is located on the land of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, no alcohol is allowed on the site. So, I toasted the new year with a strong cup of coffee. Because it was a stormy night, I had a good book. I was working with an observer in Wisconsin, logged into the telescope remotely from his home. He got to see the new year come in an hour before I did. When the new year came in, I received celebratory emails from my family in New Mexico and Missouri.

For us, stormy nights are an exercise in watching the weather. As I say, we want to be ready to take advantage of any clearing. Also, even if it doesn’t clear, I need to report the conditions to the highway department and fellow staff who will drive up the mountain the next day. I’m also on standby to respond to any weather-related emergencies at night. I’ve had nights at the observatory where the wind has knocked out power but the generators haven’t turned on. In that case, I need to investigate. We need the generators so we can stay in touch with remote observers and clear skies don’t care whether or not we have utility power. Also, though it’s not the most exciting aspect of my job, I’m also the guy who compiles usage statistics for the mountain during a night, which are then reported to our funding agencies.

At the end of the night, I shoveled the snow from around the door to the telescope where I was working, drove down to the main parking lot, then tromped through about four inches of snow to my dorm room. I woke up later on New Year’s afternoon to find that the road to the summit had been plowed and to see our supervisor of mountain operations using a front end loader to clear the roads on the mountain’s summit.

If we had been observing, we would have been taking images of Comet 46P/Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to the Earth. Essentially comets are dirty snowballs that provide a window into the conditions and materials available in the early solar system. Instead of watching a dirty snowball in space, we got to watch snow fall right here on Earth.

Stormy nights like the one we experienced on New Year’s Eve were part of the inspiration for the storms in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, one of my jobs is to keep the bad things that happen in that novel from happening at Kitt Peak. You can learn more about the novel and watch a short trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

My Adventures Without Coffee

Anyone who reads my books can probably guess that I love my coffee. Daniel the vampire astronomer cannot imagine being undead without coffee to warm the blood he consumes. Where would Ramon be without Fatemeh’s strong coffee to prime him for adventures in the wild west? Even my spacefaring adventurers make sure their ships are stocked with coffee.

As for me, I started drinking coffee during my senior year of college. I had housemates who made coffee, plus that was the year I worked at the Very Large Array radio telescope. Out there, the beverage choice was soda you could pay for or free coffee. As a college student, you can bet I took the free coffee. I hardly lived a caffeine-free existence before that. My mom always kept a pitcher of iced tea available. As a kid, if I wanted something to drink, it would be iced tea. As an almost nightly treat, she would let me have a Pepsi while I watched TV.

A few weeks ago, my doctor noted that I have an oddball heart rhythm. This is nothing new.  It was first diagnosed when I was in my 20s and as far as I knew, that was the way my heart rhythm has always been. Cardiologists have told me there’s little chance of it developing into anything worse. Despite that, my general practitioner was a bit worried. He immediately asked about my coffee consumption, and I told him I was a coffee drinker. He suggested I might want to give it up to see if it affected the heart rhythm. Given that the men in my family have a history of heart disease, I decided I should give it a shot and see what happened.

So, starting just before mid-November, I stopped drinking coffee. I also avoided caffeinated sodas and tea. I know I did consume some caffeine in chocolate and even in the occasional cup of green tea, but by my estimate, my caffeine consumption was the lowest it had been since I was a very small child. The first week without coffee wasn’t easy. The first day, I had a migraine-like headache. After that, I developed muscle aches in various parts of my body—my arms, back, legs, and hips all hurt at one time or another. This isn’t surprising given that caffeine does act as a vasodilator and giving it up would mean at least slight constriction of blood vessels. Despite that, I found I didn’t miss the coffee as much as I thought I would. It didn’t take me that much longer to “wake up” in the morning without it than it did with it. I really missed it on weekend mornings when I was most used to taking some leisurely time to read before starting my day. Also, after that first week, the pain finally vanished.

I didn’t get grumpy during my break from caffeine, but I did find myself feeling a little more prone to giving into my introvert tendencies and withdrawing to myself, especially during the first week when I was dealing with the pain. It’s hard to say whether this was a direct effect of stopping caffeine, or a side effect of the pain.

During this period, I looked into the effects of caffeine and learned that there, in fact, is little correlation between stopping caffeine use and correcting heart rhythm. Despite that, I personally have felt that I probably consumed a bit too much coffee on occasion and it seemed like it would be easier to return to moderate consumption if I started from “ground zero” so to speak. Sure enough, when I returned to my doctor this past week, he noticed essentially no change to my heart rhythm. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. Still, as I say, I hope this will be a first step in using a little more moderation in my coffee consumption.

Periodically a news story will come out about caffeine research. Sometimes the research indicates problems. Other times it indicates benefits. Most of it seems to agree caffeine, like most things in life, is best if done in moderation. Of course, any changes you make should be done in consultation with your doctor. I’m just a guy who tells thrilling tales of the imagination and studies distant galaxies, stars, and planets. Still, I found it empowering to know that I could give up caffeine with no problems if I desired.

If you want to read some of my coffee-inspired fiction, be sure to visit my website: http://www.davidleesummers.com.


Sandman Mystery Theatre

When I first discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic in 1989, I may have been one of the only people disappointed that it wasn’t about a guy in a suit, a fedora, and a gas mask who fought crime. Of course, I’m alluding to the Sandman from the Golden Age of comic books, who was actually mentioned in that first issue of Neil Gaiman’s comic. In time, Gaiman’s comic would win me over on the merits of its own great writing, but it still didn’t satisfy that interest to see more stories about the Golden Age version of the character. Just a few weeks ago, I learned that there was a comic that would do just that.

Sandman Mystery Theatre, written by Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle, ran from 1993-1999. In its 71-issue run, it returned to the 1930s to follow the adventures of Wesley Dodds, a quiet stay-at-home millionaire by day who donned a suit, trench coat, fedora, gas mask and gas gun by night to fight crime on the streets of New York City. Looking at the years of its original run, it’s no surprise why I missed it. It coincided very neatly with the early years of my marriage, family life, writing, and astronomy careers!In the Monday of Thanksgiving week, I think it’s fitting to say that I’m very thankful for the existence of digital back issues of comics!

I first discovered the Sandman character when I was a kid, reading comics featuring the Justice Society of America. This was the superhero team that preceded the more famous Justice League. Sandman was one of the team’s founding members and I found him interesting. Like Batman, Sandman has no super powers. He’s basically a detective who carries a gun that puts people to sleep. The similarities between Batman and Sandman don’t stop there. As I mentioned, Wesley Dodds is a millionaire, like Bruce Wayne. He also has a loyal butler who knows his secret. As it turns out, the two characters were introduced to readers at nearly the same time. Sandman first appeared in New York World’s Fair Comics in January 1939, while Batman debuted in Detective Comics in May 1939. Of some note, Wesley Dodds always had his loyal butler Humphries, while Alfred didn’t join Bruce Wayne until 1943.

Another interesting element to the Sandman character is that he’s one of the first comic book heroes to have a sidekick who is not simply a miniature version of himself. His sidekick was a woman named Dian Belmont who was not written as a damsel in distress even in her earliest comic appearances and often shared dangers with Wesley.

In Sandman Mystery Theatre, Matt Wagner took the source material and brought it into a gritty, noir world written for adults. It starts in 1938, just before the time period of the original Sandman comics. The story follows Wesley and Dian as they get involved in a series of murder investigations. It’s hard to call these “cozy” mysteries because the comic does not steer away from racism, child abuse, and real social issues of the time period, many of which still resonate today. We also see Wesley and Dian grow closer together and a romance blossom between them. Unlike so many comic book romances, this is not one that flickers out every story cycle, but deals with characters learning about each other and making decisions about what to reveal and not reveal about their pasts. In many ways, the story reminds me very much of the Thin Man movies of the 1930s, but with less rampant alcoholism.

Like heroes such as Batman and the Green Hornet, Wesley Dodds is essentially a masked vigilante. He has some martial arts training. He’s not as powerful as Batman. Villains can hurt him—badly. While he has money, he doesn’t affect a playboy persona like Bruce Wayne. The overall effect is that Wesley Dodds becomes a much more relatable character, like many of the noir detectives. I’m having fun catching up on back issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre. You can find digital copies at places like Amazon and Comixology.