Prizes for the Forgotten

From incandescence to fluorescence to LEDs, brightness once again rules our world. The Nobel Prize for Physics has recently been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, the three scientists who invented blue light-emitting diodes, continuing an arc traced from Thomas Edison’s earliest lightbulbs more than a century ago.

Alfred Nobel created his prize to recognize and reward the innovators and discoverers whose vision truly “benefits mankind.” Of course, even the brightest of ideas sometimes flicker and burn out. And much more often, among scientists as well as writers, there are countless names and ideas lost forever to history.

While researching my new novel Electric City, I re-discovered one such genius, a man whose brilliance of mind defied his physical deformity, and whose pragmatic approach to invention thoroughly changed the way we use electricity. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, dwarf and hunchback, mathematical engineer, protégé of Edison, was once featured in The New York Times with the headline “Modern Jove Hurls Lightning at Will.” A pioneer in the understanding of alternating current and a founder of the original research laboratory at General Electric, Steinmetz once held iconic status around the globe. Now, unlike Nikolai Tesla, whose popular resurrection has been widely acknowledged, Steinmetz remains a dimmer figure, still awaiting his return to center stage.

Now that prize announcements are no longer capturing our attention, let us remember to focus our gaze on the ones overlooked, past and present. Sometimes the only way to make sense of such erasures is to shine the beacon of historical fiction onto the faces of those we have forgotten to remember. Their dazzling wise eyes can gleam again.

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hollandlake 9.15.13

I’m seated at a gate in that mile-high limbo called the Denver Airport, waiting for the departure of my delayed flight to Missoula.  I flew out from Boston’s Logan Airport early this morning, after spending an astonishing ten days on Martha’s Vineyard, where I led a weeklong writing retreat/workshop for 10 brilliant participants.  (Testimonials to be posted soon!)  After that week ended, I was privileged to spend a few days in Aquinnah with my brother, one of his daughters, and a friend of his named Adam who showed us several of his favorite “secret wild places” on the island.  The experience left me sun-drenched and relaxed, grateful beyond measure for the gifts of my life.

And now, I’m forced to pause while heading west toward Montana.  It’s a good day to pause and consider past, present and future.  This morning thirteen years ago the world changed for many of us, maybe even the entire world, though in a strange way you can also say that for millions of people, life was already violent and absurd, painful and destructive.  For myself, as it happened, I was just about ready to head to the Oakland Airport for the first day of my first book tour for my first published novel, THE SPEED OF LIGHT.  I believed it was going to be one of the most important days of my life, the first day of the rest of my life as an author of a book I had spent ten years writing.

The rest is history, of course.  My publicist called from New York City telling me not to go to the airport, and to turn on the television instead.  I don’t have a TV anymore, but that morning I still had one, and I turned it on just in time to see the second jet hit the second tower.

Here is the thing:  along with so many of us who went into a profound state of shock that day, I wasn’t quite able to process what was happening.  When I suggested to my publicist that I could probably drive to LA in time for my bookstore event, she gently explained that there probably wouldn’t be anyone attending.  I was meant to be in Seattle the following day, then Portland, and then Denver after that.  Needless to say, I never flew to any of those places for my book tour, which was canceled.  I unpacked my bag and tried to accept what had occurred, focusing for obvious reasons on the catastrophe that had struck thousands — millions — of people.

Months afterward, it eventually dawned on me that some of my deepest personal disappointment had been shoved so far underground, even my own awareness couldn’t reach it.  I realized that this was a strange echo of what had been true for most if not all of my childhood — when no amount of sadness or loss could ever measure up to the size of my parents’ incomparable devastation as a result of the Holocaust.  Once again, I had been forced to suppress my own relatively minor grief in the face of other people’s vast mourning.

Now, here I am thirteen years later.  In less than a month, on October 7th, my first full-length poetry collection GRAVITY will be published.  And on October 14th, my third novel ELECTRIC CITY launches into the wide world.  I have to admit I’ve learned a few things about maintaining my equanimity.  I’m genuinely excited about these two books, of course, and hopeful too.  All the same, I’m quite a bit more calm about expectations than I used to be — regarding the possible highs and possible lows.  The books will have their own stories to tell.  They will become part of the rest of my life.  If I’m lucky, they will become part of your life too.

And once I land in Missoula?  My weeklong retreat/workshop at Holland Lake Lodge will begin this evening.  A small and dedicated group will gather for the first of many wondrous meals looking across at the tranquil beauty of the Swan Mountains and the snow-peaked Mission Range.  The sunset will double itself on the surface of the lake.  We will write.

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Swimming With Words

Paul's loon photo South Pond

Hello everybody!

WELCOME to my first attempt at blogging.  Before I say anything else, I want to give credit for this amazing photograph to Paul Bogart.  You may not be able to make out the details, but the bird is a loon, the time is just past dawn, and the place is South Pond, Vermont.   I’m pretty sure Paul was in a canoe when he pointed his camera and caught this perfect moment.

Swimming with words is one of my favorite ways of describing what I do, and it happens also to be true that some important words have found me while I was swimming in this very pond — especially the phrase “Begin Again,” which became an important motif in my second novel BLUE NUDE.  So, Paul’s magical photo feels like a particularly good place to start something new.

It’s Monday afternoon, I’m at the kitchen counter of my home in Berkeley, and I’m waiting to see what the light is going to decide to do before calling it quits for the day.  The usual summer fog hasn’t burned off at all.  Earlier, when I was out walking my dog Lulu, I looked up into the sky and saw a vaguely luminous disc revealing itself behind the veil of gray.  It reminded me of the first time I flew on a plane and noticed that once we rose high enough to get above the stormy layer of clouds, we discovered a brilliant blue sky and dazzling sun.  I wrote this phrase in my journal that day:  Above the clouds, the sun is always shining.

That was the day I began my journey to spend a year as a Rotary Exchange Student in The Philippines.  It was sometime in August 1976, and I was sixteen years old.  Now it’s August 2014, and I’m fifty-four.  Somewhere above the clouds, the sun is still shining.




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