Saturday, May 17, 2014

Professor-of-the-Year Convocation speech: "The Everything Box"

I was just honored as Professor of the Year at the Spring Convocation (May 16) at Seton Hill University.  Because of this award, I gave the keynote speech after the students received their commendations for their achievements.  It went quite well, and I thoroughly enjoyed giving it, so I also present it here.  Words like “speech,” “convocation” and “honored” seem stuffy at first, but most of the talk was straight story-telling, and I had much fun with it. So I hope all of you enjoy it too.

Good afternoon.  To all of you here today—President Boerio, Dean Gawelek, other administrators, the faculty, our guests, and of course the students—what I want to do is read you a story.  It’s brief.  In fact it’s a children’s picture book.  I wrote it many years ago after my niece had her first child, whose name, Abby, I used in the story.  (She’s actually here, by the way, though she’s a bit older now.)
The story celebrates education, and though I used names and details from one person’s life, the story can be applied to anyone, especially to students.  And after I read it, I will make a direct connection to you.
So, for the next few minutes, I want you to pretend to gather round, get comfortable, relax, and let “Uncle Al” tell you a story.  It’s called “The Everything Box” .  .  .

*     *     *
            The best gift that Abby ever received came in a small, plain, unwrapped box.
            Her uncle gave it to her. He said he wanted to give her a special gift, one that she could keep forever. 
But when he gave her the box, he surprised her by saying, “You know what's in here.”  
            Abby wondered. “Is it a small doll with blue jacket and pink shoes?” She had seen such a doll in a store the other day.
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby grew curious. “Are there other dolls in there, a brother and sister doll, with their friends too? And a little toy dog?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby was confused. That many things would take up all the room in the box. So she asked about something too large to fit in. “Is there a dollhouse too, with three floors and stained-glass windows, a Christmas tree in the living room, little newspapers by a chair, toy fruit in a bowl, and a fence outside?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby felt challenged now. So she said things even larger. “Is our house in there, our car, the front porch, the trees in the yard and the hedges around it, the lamp-post that doesn't work, the other houses on the street, everyone who lives in them, all my friends and their toys—and even their pets?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby now stretched her mind further. “Is the city in there, the bridges, the river we cross, the buildings and all the different people, the boats on the water, the taxi-cabs and buses, the traffic lights, the candy store, the bookstore, the big store with escalators, even the train-tracks where we put pennies to have them run over and flattened?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby let her imagination fly. “Are animals in there, squirrels, the deer in the woods, clouds and rainbows—and even rain? Is there baseball and swimming? Is the beach in there, Mommy and Daddy and Grammy and Aunt Carol, Isabelle and Will and Grace and Lexie and Lilly, all walking up the sand dunes together? Is every trip we’ve ever taken in there, the lakes, the woods, every place we’ve been?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby then thought as large as she could. “Are other countries in there, other oceans, and dreams, all the things I imagine, dragons and wizards? The past and the future, all the stories I’ve read, the adventures and the places I've heard about? Are there other planets, what I see through your telescope, the moon, Saturn and Jupiter, other stars, and spaceships, and galaxies, and . . . and . . .”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            But Abby was exhausted. “I don't understand! How could so much be inside that little box?"
            Her uncle said, “Open it.”  
Abby lifted the lid, and she saw . . .
The box held only a small mirror.
            Her uncle explained, “All that you said came from you. All you described . . . it's already in you. The best gift I can give you, Abby, is to remind you how much you already are.”
            Abby was silent.  Then she asked, “It’s all in me?  Everything I talked about?”
            Her uncle nodded, and he pointed at her forehead. “That’s in there. . . . And more.”
            Abby stared into the box.
            But then she said, “You’re wrong!  Not everything’s in here. In fact, something I like very much isn’t here.”
            Her uncle was shocked. “What!?” he exclaimed.
            Abby turned to him, and smiled, and said, “You.”
            And so, for a long time afterward, they argued and laughed over who had really given the best gift. 

*     *     *
            Now, the point I want to make with all this? 
            Education is not the gift of knowledge.  Education is the gift of self. 
            It’s not what you learn.  It’s what you become. 
If education were only about knowledge, then everyone would learn the exact same things.  No, it’s how you interact with the data, the activities, the skills—how you make them yours.  
The child in this story didn’t learn any thing she didn’t know already.  What she gained was self-awareness—and a pride in being able to respond to the gift she received with one that she herself gave back.
The result of your education is not your diploma, your job, your income.  All of that’s very important, but it’s not as important as the development of you. This is why, in your senior year, we often ask you to review the work you did in your first year when you came to Seton Hill, not just to show what you’ve learned, but to see how much you have changed.
So, the next time you wonder, “What was all my education for?” Well, just look in a mirror.  The result of all your time, your work, your investment, you will see right there.
And more. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

“The longing! The longing!”

When my novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, was accepted for publication, I was sent a publicity questionnaire by Dog Star Press to be used in advertising the book.  After a number of questions about the characters, the plot, and the research, one question struck me:  “What do you want your reader to remember most about your book.” 
The answer came immediately:  “The longing!  The longing!” 
That’s it!  Not the idea, not the science, not the speculation on possibilities (though all of those are in the book and I found them quite interesting to write about), not the movement of the plot and its working out of stellar mysteries (though unraveling the intricacy was a rewarding challenge), not the development of the protagonist who needs to negotiate with others when he’d prefer to live on his own (for someone who argues that he’s a loner, he depends a lot on other people), not the style (though I really had fun with it), and not the settings (though the artificial world of Annulus and the two planets, one a tropical world and the other an ice-world, fascinated me). 
Okay, I lied.  I want my reader to remember all of those factors.  BUT . . .
Even after that whole list of qualifiers, what I hope will impress the most is the deep emotional sense of longing—for the wonders of the universe and for life itself, for other individual selves when seen in the larger universal context.    
One can read this, on one level, as the main character’s longing for a person he can love so he does not have to feel alone any longer.  And there is a specific woman in the story he does have desire for.  But it’s more than “romance” or a need for a companion.  It’s a longing for all of the universe itself, its mystery, its fascination, and its infinite promise. 
Way back at the beginning of the space program, mid 20th century, an image popular in the SF illustrations then (I remember it well from the comics, Mystery In Space and Strange Adventures), was a low-angle shot of people looking up at the night sky, sometimes with fear (it was the time of the Cold War and flying saucer rumors, of big Red missiles and Little Green men, so there was good reason to “watch the skies”), but more often with an overwhelming wonder, a desire to visit outer space, a hope to be a part of it, sometimes even with a hand or a  finger pointing “up there”—a direction, a promise, even a new home.  The actual space program was only a decade or two away, and these images expressed a yearning for what it might bring, an emotional connection with the vast realm of space that could dwarf any experience on Earth.
Many prose examples can be found in the writings of that time, but here’s a more recent one from Ian MacDonald’s Evolution’s Shore (it shows that the idea has not gone away):  

            The sky seemed vast and high tonight, pierced by the first few stars.  The summer triangle:  Altair, Deneb, Vega.  Arcturus descending, the guide star of the ancient Arab navigators.  Sinbad’s star.  Corona Borealis; the crown of summer.  One of those soft jewels was a cluster of four hundred galaxies.  Their light had traveled for a billion years to fall on Gaby McAslan.  They receded from her skin at fifty thousand miles per second. 
Knowing their names and natures could take nothing from them.  They were stars, remote, subject to laws and processes larger than human lifetimes.  By their high and ancient light you saw the nature of your self.  You were not the pinnacle of creation beneath a protecting veil of sky.  You were a fierce, bright atom of selfhood, encircled by fire.  (4)

There’s plenty of objective science here, in the star names, the size of the clusters, the time and speed of light.  But more important is the emotional connection made between one’s small self (“not the pinnacle of creation,” only a “fierce, bright atom”) and the stars’ “high and ancient light.”   It’s the relation that’s important, how one affects the other, how one changes the definition of the other, which is at the center of “SF with feeling.”  Or SF with “longing.”
            Though my novel is first-and-foremost a story, behind its movement and character drama, behind its scenes and twists and turns, is a simple longing—for other worlds, for other people . . . for “the other” in general.  You learn a lot of what’s inside yourself when you look outside, but the main desire of the book’s protagonist and of the book itself is to look without—to seek, to find, to encounter and to experience more than one’s self.    
            The longing. The longing. 

McDonald, Ian.  Evolution’s Shore.  New York:  Bantam, 1995.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Alien Landscapes In Pictures

            When my novel is released next month at the “Chocolate Covered Book-Signing and Expo,” at the In Your Write Mind workshop at Seton Hill University (in the McKenna Center, June 27, 7:00 – 10:00), I hope to have a slideshow running on my iPad or laptop at the table where I’ll be selling and signing books. 
            The subject?  Well, obviously, “Alien Landscapes.”
            They won’t be photos of Mars or the Moon, or paintings of imaginary planets.  They’ll be views of places here on Earth that have a somewhat “alien” cast to them.  I’ve traveled a lot in the western United States, especially in the National Parks and other places of “naked geology.”  And those settings are impressive for their other-worldly nature, their sense of the uncanny and the sublime, their hovering on the edge of mystery and lack of comprehension.  These places generate questions like:  Where did those colors come from?  What is that rock?  What caused those formations?  Is that place real?  How did the landscape get that way?          
            These are the examples I hope to show.  The pictures will have been taken by me on various U.S. trips, and not all of them will be from out west—rock formations in the Appalachian Mountains and even some eastern seacoast sunrises can look just as peculiar or unique.  I wish I had traveled the world and could show sights from the Himalayas, Antarctica, the Andes, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, and a hundred others.  But maybe next year. 

            Anyway, I’d like to give a few samples here.  (Attend the book-signing and you’ll see many more.)  The first is from the area of the Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park, in Arizona: 

The colors there are near unbelievable.  You expect the warm yellows and reds, buffs and browns of places like Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and other florid locations in the Southwest, but the Blue Mesa is unique for its azures and purples.  The unexpected colors form strata in classic “badlands” formations, mounds of clayey deposits from wetlands in the past that have not congealed into solid rock, so they weather easily into these soft hillocks and humps with no jagged edges.  Geologically, they do not last “long” (“long” for geologists is millions of years).  If the climate was less arid, rains would wash them away more quickly than what’s currently happening—which is still pretty slow; you won’t notice much of a change in your lifetime.  Rain, when it comes, creates the grooves seen lining the slopes.  But the area is so stark, so devoid of life (though it does exist), the colors so subtle (the delicate pinks and violets and powder blues), the mood a bit intimidating and scary (you don’t want to get lost in all those gulleys and hidden passages), and yet at the same time touched with beauty (the small brown stones lying at the bottom of the dry washes are mostly petrified wood, which can blaze with gemstone tints), that it qualifies as awe-inspiring and other-worldly.  When the mounds are first seen, one’s comprehension and recognition are briefly challenged, brought to a halt before the view is fully assimilated.  

            The West has many examples of such bare-rock and austere vistas, but you can find strangeness in the East too, especially if you tweak the visual “alienness” just a little.  The following picture is of a section of Jockey’s Ridge, an enormous sand dune (the largest east of the Mississippi) on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina:

This photograph was taken early in the day, when the light was still low.  The colors are genuine (as they are in all these photos), and the only full-picture adjustment was to increase the contrast, which is standard procedure for most digital pictures that notoriously lack contrast when you first download them.  But I was surprised to see what happened when the normal contrast-increase was applied.  The sky took on a dark deepened sense of mystery, and the sand came alive with an inner radiation glow.  (A black-and-white version of this photo I’ve named “Radiated Dune.”)  The reflected light seemed almost painful and suggested the radioactivity connotation.  The large “footprints” to the right and the far poles on the horizon only seem to add a feeling of ambiguity. Finally, I loved the straight-edge distinction between light sand and dark sky along the slope to the right of center.  Eerie, indeed.

            This last example is from the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, showing a rock wall in Cantwell Cliffs state park:

The Hocking Hills area has a number of exposed cliffs that have formed “rock cities” and large hollows. Anyone familiar with the Bone graphic novels by Jeff Smith might recognize the area as the inspiration for the landscape in his story (an “Old Man’s Cave” can be found in both the state park with that name and in the Bone narratives).  The sandstone of the area is mostly gray but often tinted with the orange, red, and pink of iron oxide.  What adds to the layers of colors, though, are the paint-like coatings of lichen, a hearty fungus-algae combination, that stains the rock in washes of pale green, turquoise, soft ochre, and even a thin violet at times.  Thicker layers of moss add a rich yellow-green or darker green.  Besides the increased contrast, one particular trick with this photo was used:  it’s printed upside-down.  It looks just as peculiar reversed, but I found the resulting resemblance to “Swamp Thing’s” face just too attractive.  The gap in the cliff just right of center resembled an eye, and the green ridge on the left the creature’s snout.  Say it’s just a result of a graphic-novel background, but the associations, and the unexpected softened tints in the hard rock, made for a peculiarity that was hard to resist. 
            As said, many more examples of such “alien landscapes” will be on display at the book-signing.  (Also, of course, the novel will be available.)  Seven o’clock, June 28, 7:00-10:00, McKenna Center, Seton Hill University.  I’d love to hear reactions about both the novel and the pictures.  Hope to see you there.