The mountains are burning

The mountains are burning.

That’s not unusual, this time of year. Wildfires are a normal part of life in the west, and in Tucson, where mountains ring the city, we can often watch them burn from our homes on the valley floor.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains]

Some fires are distant, a puff of smoke behind a distant ridge. Some are nearer, near enough to turn into orange snakes of flame after sundown. Every fire is different, and in memory, many fires get tied to the times of their burning.

Like the smoldering gray fire that made the Catalina Mountains look volcanic, watched from my back porch shortly before a trip to Iceland to see real volcanoes. After that, Iceland’s volcanoes and that fire were linked in my mind, and future fires seemed a little more volcanic, too.

Or a closer fire, also in the Catalinas, during which I watched the flames flare upwards in bright orange pillars I would later learn were the result of propane tanks exploding as the fire reached the Mount Lemmon retreat town of Summerhaven. Months later, when we were finally allowed to drive up the mountain, we found large stretches of once-familiar terrain laid open to gray ash and bare, blackened trees.

Less than a year later, a friend’s ashes were scattered on the same mountain. My friend and that fire—and my friend and that mountain too—were inextricably intertwined in memory after that. They still are.

Or this year, the pandemic year, when the Catalinas are burning again.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains at sunset]

This time the fire threatens not just Summerhaven, up in the heights, but also nearer houses in and around the mountain’s foothills. The smoke is visible deep into the city, billows of white and gray and brown smoke that move like stormclouds over the peaks. At sunset, as I walk through the neighborhood and wave to our socially distant neighbors, the smoke turns pink, just as clouds do.

One day, I watched as firefighting planes dumped streams of fire-retardant red slurry into the smoke. The next day, the mountains bore the scars, lines of red clearly visible across their gray slopes.

How can the fire not become tied to the pandemic, to the protests for justice in its wake, to this entire long, strange, summer?

The slurry will fade, given time, as scars do. As the ashes of earlier fires have faded, becoming buried beneath years of new growth.

One day this moment in history will fade, too, slipping from living memory into stories and from stories into books. Like mountains, people heal and regrow, given enough time.

But I don’t live in that future. I live here, now, and I don’t yet know which houses will be lost, and which will be saved. I don’t know which landscapes will be remade, and which will remain the same. No one does.

All we really know, as we stand outside and watch the smoke, is that today, the mountains are burning.

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

1. I have a piece in the Weekly Humorist this week.

Buy My Book, It Will Protect You from the Coronavirus, Says Author Whose Public Appearances Have All Been Canceled

(For the record, I didn’t have any launches or appearances planned. But a great many authors have, and you should totally buy their books.)

2. Good Unicorn, Bad Unicorn.[Good

(Good Unicorn: “Feeling ill? Here, let me cure you with my magical horn.” 
Bad Unicorn: “Get your unicorn-purified hand sanitizer here—just $500 a bottle!”)

Hang in there, everyone.

To save a life is to save the world

[Iris buds in the backyard]The irises are getting ready to bloom in our backyard, just as they have faithfully for many years, in spite of whatever neglect we can throw at them. I’ve been spending time outside with them this week, weeding, catching up, keeping my family occupied as best I can. We’re sticking close to home, aside from grocery runs, but I’m grateful for that outdoor time, and for the irises left to us by our house’s first owner, a yearly gift from someone we’ll never know.

Yet more and more, I’m thinking about those who not only can’t get outside, but are stuck indoors in close quarters, including the many immigrants currently in ICE detention. There is no real social distancing in detention, and it doesn’t  take much to imagine how quickly COVID-19 could spread through a detention center—and how quickly those centers could turn into death camps.

The vast majority of those in detention have not committed any violent acts. They are not a threat to society, and at this unique moment in time, they need to be free to be with their loved ones and keeping distancing themselves from everyone else the same as the rest of us are.

I called Governor Ducey today and urged him to use his emergency powers to free those in ICE detention now. Those of you who live in Arizona may be laughing at that, knowing our governor—but we have to try, and the more people who call, the more pressure there will be on his office to act. I have to believe that no one truly wants to be responsible for  so many deaths.

Whatever state you’re in, please do the same. Governor Ducey’s number is 602-542-4331, but the numbers of the nation’s other governors are easy enough to find online, and many states farther from the border than we are also house detention centers.

[Iris buds]We can’t gather in large numbers on the steps of our state capitols right now, but we can do this much. Call your governor, and then urge your family and friends to do the same. You could be literally helping to save lives.

Feel free to share this post widely, or to write one of your own.

Some less frequently quoted words from Reverend King

Because as powerful as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, many of Martin Luther King, Jr’s other words were powerful, too.

“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York

 “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
Sermon at St. Mary’s Church, East Berlin

“It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road … And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around … And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

“But there was never a conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same. The method of science is observation, that of religion contemplation. Science investigates. Religion interprets. One seeks causes, the other ends. Science thinks in terms of history, religion in terms of teleology. One is a survey, the other an outlook.”
“Science and Religion”

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
“Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York

 “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

“On some positions cowardice asks the question, ‘is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
“A Proper Sense of Priorities,” Washington, DC

The Rise of Skywalker: New hopes, old choices, and spoilers

I have a fondness for seeing worlds torn apart.

Fictional worlds, that is.

I’m not talking about post-apocalyptic fiction, though I enjoy the genre and have even written in it. I’m talking in the broader sense, when a fictional world is built on assumptions that the reader or viewer comes to accept, and then those assumptions get questioned, and one way or another it becomes clear they cannot hold.

When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I loved it for affirming a science fantasy world that I’d loved since elementary school. But when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I loved it for questioning that world, for showing characters I loved as flawed, for giving us the sense that the Jedi, in their way, were as problematic as the Sith, or at the least, problematic enough that a something had to give, to change.

When Luke Skywalker said the Jedi had to end, he seemed to have a point. And at the very end of the movie, when we saw an unnamed young stable sweeper using the force, without training and without any apparent danger, I saw what seemed to be the first hints of a new world, a new way of looking at the force and its place in the world, and what it was for and who it belonged to.

After all, we’ve been hearing for ages about the need to bring balance to the force. Perhaps balance meant moving beyond the rigid dichotomy of Sith and Jedi, of black and white, of starkly clear-cut good and evil.

So I settled in to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with hopes that I was about to see this universe that had for so long been a part of my life undergo a fundamental, mythic transformation.

Perhaps I should have known better.

But for much of the movie, it seemed the story was heading just that way. Time and again, Rey found third options, alternate solutions, instead of going with the standard attack or retreat, fight or flight responses I’d come to expect.  She got creative, thought outside the teachings of the first eight movies, and even, in the end, figured out that the force could be used for healing, not just for inflicting damage and teleporting small objects and convincing the occasional stormtrooper that you’re not worth bothering with. (I’ve long thought that magical healers and magical warriors must have, at the core, the same basic magic.)

And then there were Rey and Kylo, both closer to the middle than the edges of their respective orders, so close they could fight back to back, surely poised to set that fundamental change in motion.

But in the end, the final battle is literally a battle between all the Sith that ever existed and all the Jedi that ever existed. If the Jedi fought defensively, and with love rather than hate, in the end it was still their greater power that won the day.

A friend who writes tie-in novels for another fictional universe once told me that he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, so long as he put everything back where it started by the last page.

I felt like this is what happened in The Rise of Skywalker, which is in retrospect unsurprising for a franchise with many more stories to tell.

I enjoyed the movie, which may not be clear from all I’ve said about it so far. At times I enjoyed it a lot. There are bits that I’m squeeeeeing about in various forums, even now. The importance of chosen family. The fact that the force can heal. Jedi master Leia Organa. Flying stormtroopers. C3POs sacrifice. A certain Wookiee, receiving his medal at last.

The importance of remembering we’re not alone, no matter what fear tries to tell us.

Yet in the final moments of The Rise of Skywalker, that unknown stablehand is forgotten. Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, letting me think, for just a moment more, that maybe everything was going to change after all. Then Rey pulls out her own lightsaber, consciously chooses Team Skywalker over Team Palpatine, and the status quo—a dichotomous world with two choices and two sides, is affirmed.

The universe I’ve long loved was still there, intact.

Unchanging and unchanged.

Overheard

One person walks up to another in a local coffeeshop.

“Are you ———?”
”Yes, I am.”
”I’m ———. Twenty years ago you saved my life.”
”Well. I’m glad you’re still here.”

The first person proceeds to share photos of his daughter, who is now starting college, with the second.

I know no more than that.

Well, no more except that the world is a strange and wondrous place.

And also that the things we do matter.

But seriously, muskoxen are awesome

Puzzled by the president’s recent interest in purchasing Greenland? Yeah, me too. Fortunately, the internet is a veritable treasure trove of inaccurate unreliable poorly-sourced easy-to-find information, and it was but the work of a few minutes and one too many blue raspberry Eegees to track down the top reasons Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland.

  1. It’s the largest country on the map in the Situation Room.
  2. Not enough muskoxen at Mar-a-Lago.
  3. If he doesn’t act now, those damn liberals might amend the Constitution to prohibit buying and selling people.
  4. Sea ice futures. They’re a thing.
  5. The Flores settlement only applies to holding families in detention, not to abandoning them on Arctic islands.
  6. Obama never tried to buy an autonomous Danish territory, now, did he?
  7. No one on the moon will return the president’s calls.
  8. He called dibs, so there.