“What is it?”

Penguin about Town asks his brother, Roy.

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After a moment or two of silence, Roy clears his throat and, in his best ever imitation of Scotty in that ‘By Any Other Name’ episode, replies, “It’s green.”

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For the world is hollow, and I have touched the Sky (City)….

West of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America: Acoma Pueblo. Sky_CityThe 367-foot sandstone bluff is visible from miles away, but ageless adobe houses nearly blend into the top of the mesa. The Acoma settled here in approximately 1150 A.D. – for defensive reasons as the story goes – and although the majority of the tribe now lives on the reservation land surrounding the mesa, 50 or so tribal members still live here in their sky city. There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewers. That’s the way they like it. Many of those who remain are elderly, we were told, or just don’t care for the hustle and noise of city life. Some of them are painters or weavers or potters who are maintaining their traditional arts. (And they do beautiful work – while some of them take credit cards – really, just take a bunch of cash with you – it’s easier.)

Because the people value their privacy, the pueblo is not open to visitors except for organized tours, led by a tribal guide. After stopping at the cultural center down below – which also houses a museum and gift shop – you are taken up in groups by shuttle bus driven along the road you have to thank Hollywood for. Until Hollywood fell in love with New Mexico, there was only a “staircase” of sorts carved into the cliff face. But to make movies, they need equipment, and equipment needs roads. So now the tribe uses the road as part of their tourist infrastructure. (We had the opportunity to take the, uh, “stairs” back down the mesa after the tour was over. Some of our group did, but I declined. Too close to the beginning of the trip for me to trash a knee or ankle.) Ladder_cropped

There is no wandering wherever you want, no walking into people’s homes. We saw few people besides our guide and the artists displaying their wares. And a dog.

The colors in Sky City are muted: shades of brown and white against the blue sky. It seemed somehow fitting, because the history of the Pueblo is not all pleasant. No, it wasn’t like a somber funeral procession or something, nor did we feel anger or bitterness. Our guide was funny, entertaining, and informative. She spoke of having “the best of two worlds” (of getting to choose which parts of Catholicism to blend with their native beliefs, or getting to choose whether she was in her world or in ours).

She showed us the traditional adobe ovens still in use, the patched-many-times-over walls of their homes (if you look closely you can see bits of old pots embedded in the mud).adobe_oven

Then there was the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1640). In the Spaniards bid to convert the natives, Acoma men were forced to build it. Some of them are still present we were told: buried in the walls. And that bell you see in the photo below. They didn’t want it. But they were made to pay for the bell anyway – with their children. It wasn’t the first time children had been taken from them (never to be seen again).

You won’t see photos of the inside of the church (beautifully restored!) – it is not permitted. church_bellNor will you see photos of the graveyard which sits between the church and the edge of the cliff. It not only represents yet another feat of architectural engineering they accomplished on top of this bluff (no road to haul up all that dirt), but another way in which they were forced to accept a foreign custom: burying their dead. There is little room left in the graveyard. From now on, only the elders can be buried there.

But that is not to say there will be no other arrivals. On the far wall, overlooking that abrupt drop-off to the valley floor, there is a hole. It is for the souls of their children. Those the Spanish took away, the ones they have no idea what ever happened to. There will always be room for those children’s spirits to return to their people. It may take a long time for the spirits to find their way home, but they will always be welcomed.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part I)

In honor of the two-year anniversary of my Antarctic odyssey and its tremendous emotional impact on me, I’d like to repost some older entries. If you’re a new follower, I hope you enjoy. Let’s explore – our minds and our world.

It’s a bit tricky to jog on a treadmill on the deck of a moving ship.  The pitch, the roll, your stride, your rhythm. You have to anticipate, to compensate as your foot lands short when the deck pitches upward, or extend your stride when the ship pitches down into the troughs.

I’m not talking about those massive cruise ships with their massive stabilizers.  I’ve never been on one and, quite frankly, have no desire to ever go cruising with 4000 of my closest friends.  My preference is for smaller vessels, which usually advertise themselves as eco-cruisers or expedition ships, like the 367-foot long, 148 passenger National Geographic Explorer.  The Explorer, too, has stabilizers of course, but the ship is small enough for you to feel the ocean, to connect with it in a way impossible on big ships. That may not always be a good thing – barf bags anyone?  But when the swells are just right, it’s like being rocked to sleep in a hammock while the slap of the waves against the hull, the faint hum of the engines, and the cries of the trailing seabirds become your background music.

But there’s no closing your eyes, losing yourself in any music, when jogging on this treadmill. (Yes, I like to jog with my eyes closed. That’s why you’ll find me inside on a treadmill and not outside, bothered by those pesky worries about running into traffic…or off a cliff.)  But even when safely ensconced on a treadmill, there are times when I won’t, or can’t, close my eyes.  Sailing alongside the Antarctic Peninsula is one of them.  If there was ever a vote taken for best jogging scenery, I think Antarctica would win.

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Imagine yourself up on the Explorer’s Wellness Deck, just below the Bridge Deck, your feet rising and falling with the ship as it runs through the waves, gliding past dark, jagged peaks coated in striated patterns of snow scarred by avalanches. I dare you to close your eyes.

I only wish I had discovered this joy sooner than halfway through the trip.  As I wrote in an earlier posting “Healing Through Horror” I’d been very upset by leaving behind my terminally ill cat, Turtle, and it took me many days to recover my emotional stability, to truly revel in this adventure I had embarked upon.

But finally in the darkness of my cabin one night a tiny voice came to me telling me that Turtle was still alive despite my certainty that she had already passed. I dared not admit to that hope – lest I be disappointed upon returning home.  But it was enough of a spark to get me up early the next morning, grab my iPod, and get on that treadmill.  There to discover the joy I had been missing: music in my ears, Antarctica outside the window.  Despite the turmoil of my emotions, I found myself running to the rhythm of the waves, kicking my heels back, with a smile spreading across my face. It became a carefully choreographed dance between my feet, the ship, and the waves.  A trio of partners intertwined.

It may sound strange to many, but my favorite music genre is movie soundtracks. (I still remember the odd looks that admission earned me during a lunch time conversation with co-workers years ago.) There is no better music when it comes to motivating you to pick up your pace.  No, flowery rom-com theme music won’t quite cut it; heroic action scores – that’s the thing. And think of the irony of blasting the theme song from “Hawaii Five-O” while sailing past giant tabular icebergs ten times the size of your ship.

Still, that morning, the music – its daring, hero-infused notes – couldn’t have been more contradictory when it came to the scenery: Star Trek [2009], scored by Michael Giacchino.  But maybe not. What could seem as alien, as far away as outer space to the average person? Antarctica. More importantly, it fit my soaring mood.

Give the full soundtrack a listen. Especially the End Credits. See if that rise, the way the music crescendoes at the 4.5” mark, doesn’t make your feet faster, your breath quicker.  All the while surrounded by a myriad of seabirds: albatrosses, petrels, gulls, fulmars, and shearwaters, who fly past the windows, wheeling and diving, dancing – like you – with the joy of freedom in Antarctica.

Next Exit: The Comfort Zone

There are many ways to test the boundaries of your comfort zone. Traveling is only one of them.  A more risky method, to some, is to put ourselves – our creativity – “out there” into the public eye. All writers, all artists, hope for accolades and sales, and fans. But first comes rejection.

We’ve all been there. Rejection letter after rejection letter. How many do you have tucked away in a drawer or shoebox? Or filed away electronically in your email inbox?  From magazine editors, to book publishers, to literary agents. From faded photocopies of impersonal form letters to scathing commentaries on your lack of creativity. It hurts, doesn’t it?

And in-person rejection? Even worse. Workshops with editors and fellow writers can be a wonderful place to find inspiration and make friends, but they can also be gut wrenchingly painful. But if you can survive being skewered by a professional book editor like the “evil Ginger” (as we referred to her afterward), you can survive anything. Even Hollywood.

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In 1996, I wrote a spec script titled “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” for the television series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” about Dr. Bashir’s efforts to save the same dying aliens who had murdered his parents. A few months later, in 1997, that script earned me the rare chance to pitch ideas to the series’ producers. I took those experiences I had at the writers workshops and steeled my nerves as I walked onto the lot at Paramount Studios. I told myself I would do better. And I did, though probably not my best. I was still nervous. I recall laughing at a non-funny comment. But I also remember a nodding head, and “interesting” while watching the producer scribble some notes on a yellow legal pad. The meeting ended cordially with a handshake and a “we’ll call you.”

I had a lot of hope that phone call would come, but it never did. That was disappointing, and depressing. But no writer can let that stop them. You have to keep trying. Keep writing. Write, re-write, edit, re-write.

Never dump an idea. I resurrected the title of that spec script for a fantasy short story published on the web. And I transformed the script into a science-fiction short story, “The Life of Words.” Dr. Bashir’s parents became the “brilliant but dead Bashins” and Dr. Bashir morphed into a linguistic anthropologist named August Goodloe. The aliens, and their terminal condition, remained the driving force of the story. Originally published in the journal of Anthropology and Humanism, “The Life of Words” is now found as part of my “Skin and Bones” anthology available on Amazon Kindle.

And all those rejection letters still tucked away in a drawer? Someday they’ll make nice kindling for a bonfire.