Cellular Memory

You can stop me in my tracks with a program or story about ancient Rome. My stomach flutters when I look at photos of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and imagine the people who filled them, 2000 years ago. Gazing at lustrous marble statues of curly-haired emperors,  elaborate friezes of grappling soldiers, I feel almost holy, as if I’m approaching important truths, closing in on a memory.

The cells in our bodies have age-old intelligence. Consider migration, the way in which a creature knows, from birth, precisely where to head. This innate intelligence works in the background, constantly informing us, keeping us alive. If a pathogen from the past resurfaces, our bodies know how to handle it. We are now learning that this cellular memory is also evident in organ transplant patients, particularly heart recipients, who will sometimes assume the habits, behaviors and preferences of their donors. Every breath we take and every bite we swallow is composed of atoms that have been here since the earth began. Perhaps we are stirred by the places and cultures we were once a part of. If you love the violin, your forebear might have played the lute.

So, along with my blue eyes and cautious ways, there’s a reasonable chance I was born with this tenderness toward ancient Rome. I once wrote a story about Pompeii and became lost in the research; for weeks I could think of little else, and even my dreams were filled with fire and pumice.

I have spent some time thinking about the Coliseum and what went on inside those massive walls. Commissioned by Emperor Vespesian in 72 AD, the project was completed eight years later. With a population of nearly one million, Rome was becoming unmanageable and agitation was on the rise. Vespesian hoped to quell the anger and gain popularity by staging deadly combats between gladiators, as well as animals fights—over nine thousand animals were killed in the inaugural games. If a gladiatorial struggle did not end in death, the presiding emperor would decide the fate of the fallen: thumb’s up or thumb’s down. Sitting in rows according to their social status, 55,000 Romans cursed and cheered as they watched the slaughter below. When the crowd grew more restive, the games grew more bizarre, but as the empire neared its end, nothing could appease the frenzied masses.

While there are many reasons for the fall of the Roman empire, the problems began with the politics. The Senate, designed to govern fairly and wisely, became riddled with corruption. Consuls and officials offered positions to those who could pay for them. Bribes were accepted in exchange for favors. Unscrupulous emperors took control, while merciless minions carried out their atrocities. At last, there was nothing for the masses to do but form coalitions against their own government and eventually overpower it.

Aside from a vile few, people today would not tolerate the butchery that went on in the Coliseum, but we do have our own ignoble forms of entertainment on the small screen. Buckwild. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Amish Mafia. Bridalplasty. If we can’t watch people kill themselves, we can at least see them at their lowest. Some say that reality shows, having gotten so bad, are on the wane. If so, we are one step closer to freedom.

Before the Roman coalitions became a real threat to the government, before they began to take back their own lost power, there must have been ancient Occupy movements, small groups of loosely organized plebeians desperate to be heard.

We know that history repeats itself. To see that nothing is too big to fail, all we need to do is look back. The change that must happen is already upon us. In my cells I can feel it coming.


Betting on Books

Next month is the long-awaited launch of my short story collection, SURVIVAL SKILLS. Soon I’ll be joining the ranks of all the other authors who are hoping their newly published books will find an audience.

In the past several months, many of us have been doing what we can to get the word out, mostly through social media: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest. How successful these marketing venues have been for us remains to be seen. All we know is that exposure is key, and the more we like and follow, tweet and retweet, post and share, the greater our chances for recognition. For those of us who were not brought up in the electronic age, learning the tricks involved in setting up blogs and author pages is challenging to say the least, and it doesn’t help that technology is constantly jumping ahead of itself. Writers of any age would rather be writing than cyber networking, but we enter the fray and do our best.

The most daunting reality I’ve experienced thus far is the sheer number of us. Racing toward the same goal, we are teammates competing with each other. After all, there is only so much recognition to go around, only so much money to spend on books. It’s a selling frenzy and a buyer’s market, with books selling for less than a dollar, or being given away, by the thousands, in hopes of actual sales. Publishers in this country, electronic and otherwise, churn out 800 books a day. In this galaxy of productivity, what sort of odds does one book, my book, have?

And where do buyers begin? With self-publishing having eclipsed conventional forms, how do readers determine quality? Can we trust bloggers and reviewers? Stars and likes? Considering the many ways a web presence can be manipulated, does 15,000 Twitter followers mean anything at all? The internet is a monstrous game of chance and everyone is placing bets.

I’ve no idea how one separates the wheat from the chaff. And of course, one man’s chaff is another man’s wheat. I have zero interest in vampire novels, however well written, but who can dispute their  popularity? I like literary short fiction, a genre not known for blockbuster sales (which is ironic when you consider our tight schedules and short attention spans). I’ve asked people about this and they tell me that short stories don’t deliver, that they just don’t have enough meat on the bone. Well, I think there are plenty of meaty stories out there, stories that amuse and amaze, stories that will break your heart. You just need to know where to look.

So what can I say about SURVIVAL SKILLS? What bare truths can I give you? I can tell you that this an honest offering, that these stories evolved over several years and required my best effort. I can tell you that most of them originally appeared in reputable journals. I can tell you that my publisher, Ashland Creek Press, is committed to promoting quality literature that explores our connections with the natural world.

The characters in SURVIVAL SKILLS are not heroes. Like you and me, they are just trying to outlast the perils that surround them, taking what comfort they can on the way and often acquiring some strange companions. You won’t come across any vampires in these tales, but I’m betting you’ll enjoy them anyway.


Survival Skills Cover

Looking For a Good Time

Last week I enjoyed a video a friend sent me of gorillas romping in heaps of fallen leaves. Riding the exercise bike a few minutes later, I turned on the television and landed on an enchanting nature show featuring animals at play—lion cubs, penguins, puppies, dolphins. After that, on my way up the stairs, I was ambushed by my spring-crazed cat. He had been hiding behind a door, waiting for me. I took these events as a sign, a reminder that I had a whole day ahead of me in which to have fun—or not.

At the plant nursery where I work there is an arching wooden bridge. In the winter it spans a river of rain water; in the summer it turns whimsical, serving no function other than to delight the children who are compelled to run over it, again and again. Another big attraction are the fountains. Children are charmed by water and will head for it like baby sea turtles. Their joyful shrieks carry across the nursery as they thrust their hands into the basins and splash the water this way and that. Color grabs them, too. They always make a beeline for the Dramm water wands, which come in an assortment of delicious colors. Product designers understand that color is fun, and even adults can’t resist that rainbow display. We sell a lot of Dramm water wands.

Children are masters of play. I’ve often wondered why this is so, why we lose the capacity for fun as we get older. We have our grown-up games of course—Scrabble and poker, Wii and Xbox, tennis and bowling. But these are games with an end point, a goal. Even individual sports like hang-gliding or cliff jumping require planning and risk assessment, a competition with oneself.

Children don’t pause to consider themselves; they just plunge into whatever catches their attention. They do not know that being alive means being in peril. They have no idea that their chances are slimming, that summers are not long, that one day they won’t be here. When they start skipping, when they make stone soup, when they build forts out of chairs and blankets, they are living in the only realm they will ever own. Running without reins, they are free because they don’t know it.

While we may no longer feel the urge to build forts or splash in fountains, we adults still lose ourselves now and then. Alone in our homes, we might break out in dance, or grab a spatula and start singing into it. In quieter moments, we can disappear into our passions: fossil collecting, product design, painting. As a writer, I lose myself not only in composition, but in research as well. There are many ways to escape the tyranny of time, if only for a few hours.

It is said that a person who is living well makes no distinction between her work and her play, and this is certainly true for those lucky enough to love their jobs. Most of us can’t make that claim. We labor to pay the bills, and then we labor at home, and what free time we have is spent driving from one vendor to another. After a few months of this, we reward ourselves with a vacation that never feels adequate because we have leveraged too much on it.

I’m wondering if we can trick our stodgy selves by wringing more joy out of our daily lives, if, like children, we could make our own fun. We could start small, maybe with accessories, adding a scarf, a lapel pin. We could pour our coffee into china instead of a mug. Taking a cue from Martha Stewart, we could decorate the dining room table with fall leaves and fruit. We could smile at everyone we encounter and see what they do. We could make it a game.

There’s a woman in town who drives an old Cadillac on which she has glued hundreds of tiny toys. There is a couple down the street who have turned their front yard into a fairyland of handmade stone castles. The woman next door takes photos of neighborhood dogs, then turns them into Christmas ornaments she gives to the owners.

How hard could it be to have a little more fun each day? A child can do it.