The Vengeance of El Niño

It’s been a while since I have shared what I am working on. I blogged extensively about my research visit to Hawai‘i in January of 2015, but I’ve been on radio silence about work ever since.

Part of that is because if I say too much about the story, why would you want to read it when it is published? Another issue is providing detail about a story that might very well change so drastically in the writing process that it becomes unrecognizable.

I did mention that it has been much easier writing with a plot outline than without one. And that was certainly true until I wrote up to the intended climax of the story—and discovered that it wasn’t actually the climax after all and I needed to extend the story (for which no plot outline yet existed).

Part of the problem was that I hit the putative climax at about 65,000 words into the story. That means that I would have wrapped it up in about 75,000 words, which is a bit light for a novel like this. “The Obsidian Mirror” was about 100,000 words, and I am aiming for a similar length for this novel.

So I hit a rough patch as I floundered around trying to figure out what comes next in the story. I hesitate to call it “writer’s block” because I wasn’t blocked. I knew where the story was going, I was just missing a piece. Sort of like Indiana Jones crawling across a rope bridge across a steep chasm and there’s ten or fifteen planks missing in the middle. And crocodiles (my publishing contract and deadline) waiting below.

And then there was getting sick. Then the holidays. El Niño came for a visit last week and flooded the basement, soaking our family photos, my oil paintings, family historiana, and a lot of other stuff. I spent this past week gently prying apart photographs and arranging them on every available surface to dry, turning them over, grouping them, and tossing the ruined ones away. I did no writing at all.

Among the things I found was a packet of letters, all dated around 1879. They were written by someone named Carrie to her cousin, William Smith of Roxbury, NY. (Mr. Smith was one of my ancestors, which is how I came by the letters, but I haven’t looked him up to determine exactly what the relationship is.) They were written in a delicate copperplate hand, very legible, the India ink still clear and sharp despite their age and the complete saturation of the paper.

I reluctantly decided I would have to throw them out. There were so many of them, and my priority was rescuing my thousands of family photos before they stuck irretrievably together. I read a few of the letters and they were fairly mundane, though written with clear affection for the recipient. I felt guilty. They had been kept perfectly for 110 years, and I was the one who trashed them.

However, I found a poignant little poem in Carrie’s spidery copperplate. Here it is:

You I will remember

And in this heart of mine

A cherished spot remains for you

Untill (sic) the end of time.


Remember I

When this you spy

And think of me that is very shy.


Remember me

When this you see

And think of me that thinks of thee.


Remember Carrie

Where ‘ere you tarry.

And think of me

That will never marry.


The last stanza was enclosed in brackets. What do you think? I don’t mean Carrie’s gifts as a poet, which are slight, but the heart of it. I think Carrie was in love with William. I have at least saved her poem, which must have cost this shy woman a great deal to share with her adored cousin.

That much of Carrie I am keeping, safe for now.


Carrie’s Poem

Getting back to my current book, I am firm on the title of “Fire in the Ocean.” It is set in Hawai‘i, which was built—and is still being built—by fire in the ocean: volcanoes. It also touches on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where billions of tons of particulate plastic are swirling around out there like peas and carrots in alphabet soup. Hawai‘i is smack dab in the middle of it. The slow dissolution of chemicals from the plastics is another form of “fire in the ocean,” poisoning sea life. And, of course, Pele, the goddess of volcanic fire, is a featured character in the book. Those of you who followed my blog from Hawai‘i know why I couldn’t leave Pele out of the story.

I am back on the job writing. El Niño is paying another visit, but we have pumps going and sandbags. All my rescued photos are safe and dry now and my oil paintings are drying out in the bathtub. Good time to write!


“The Burden” This is one of my oil paintings, now residing in my bathtub. It won a first prize somewhere obscure.

Nana’s 13 Tips for Living a Happy Life

I am a grandmother. Two little girls, aged six years and 20 months respectively, have become the center of my little universe. I live with them, so I get to watch as each goes through the process of becoming who she is meant to be. It’s like watching two wondrous and completely different flowers unfurl their petals to the sun.

Naturally, I wonder how long I will be in their lives. I might live another 40 years, or I might buy the farm tomorrow. I have wondered what I can leave with them that will be of the greatest value to them on their journey through life.

I do feel I have something of value to offer, above and beyond my unconditional love. My childhood was no bed of roses, though many others have had worse. Somehow I found my way through to adulthood with minimal damage. I have been examining how I managed to achieve a life so full of joy, love, warmth and happiness, because I want to share it with these little girls.

Some of this advice may not be “true” in the sense of being an absolute, universal truth. Sometimes, you have to choose what is true to achieve your goals. (I am not talking about scientific truth here, but inner truth, which adheres to its own laws.) For instance, I choose to believe that if someone is nasty to me, karma will take care of them. I don’t have to do a thing for that person to receive their comeuppance. This may or may not be true, but it works for me because I don’t harbor a lot of anger or resentment against those who have wronged me. Negative feelings destroy happiness. Besides, I’ve lived long enough to see karma come into play more than once!


I want to acknowledge that I had a lot of help in finding my way to living a happy life. I got good advice from many people, and I firmly believe that if your life isn’t working well, you should seek help. Too many people suffer their entire lives because they couldn’t reach out and ask.

So here’s my first draft of my recipe for happiness. The girls won’t understand it now, but they will someday. It’s not original with me. I think if you asked any truly happy person how they achieved happiness, you would hear the same thing.

1. Love yourself. Yes, you are imperfect, but so is everything and everyone else. Love who you are, warts included. You must love yourself before you can truly love another. And you must love yourself before another person can truly love you. I don’t know why that is so, but it is. Love without self-love will turn sour. On the other hand, self-love alone is just that: alone.

2. Don’t compare yourself to others. Someone else will always be smarter, prettier, richer, luckier, or more talented than you. Someone else will always be less intelligent, less attractive, poorer, less fortunate or less talented than you. Your value does not depend on another person’s imperfections, and another’s assets do not cast a shadow on your own.


When you compare yourself unfavorably with another person, it will make you feel badly about yourself—for no reason. If someone else is better looking—well, that’s a matter of opinion. You’re never going to look like that person, so learn to love the way you look. Be who you are, and be the best you possible.

3. Don’t worry. It’s a waste of time and stomach lining. When there’s something troubling that’s outside our control—let’s say layoff rumors or climate change—we worry because it makes us feel like we’re doing something about it, even though there’s nothing we can do. I think it’s valuable to formulate an action plan if it makes sense: “I’ll freshen up my resume, make a list of places I’d like to work, start researching open jobs.” But worrying about things you cannot change or influence is just running the old hamster wheel—a lot of repetitive fuss that gets you nowhere. Worrying raises the level of stress hormones in your blood—cortisol, etc.—which cause inflammation, raise blood pressure, and in general aren’t good for you. Stress hormones play a valuable role if you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, but they don’t do much to combat climate change.


4. Don’t worry about what other people say or think about you. Okay, obviously, if the school principal says you have to change your behavior or she’ll kick you out, you have to pay attention. I’m talking about the “Cheryl says that I eat worms” kind of stuff. Or Sid thinks you’re too fat or too thin. Or Annette doesn’t like you because whatever.

First of all, it’s helpful to know that other people hardly ever think about you. They’re way too busy thinking about themselves. Second, people view other people through the filter of their own lives and experiences. Many times when you hear something negative about yourself from someone else, they are merely reflecting their feelings about themselves.

Let’s take bullies as an example. Bullies terrify other kids in school, who tend to think that the bully is hugely self-confident and powerful. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Bullies are insecure people who deeply dislike themselves and have so little inner strength that they have to prove how strong they are by beating on others. Making other people unhappy makes the bully feel good. For a while. Then they have to do it again, because they are so miserable inside.

Just realizing why they behave in this way gives you power because you know it’s not about you; it’s about them. If you don’t give in to their manipulations, they have no power over you. Just remember that what you get from other people is mostly about them, not about you.

If you’re still in elementary school, middle school or high school when you read this and you are being bullied by someone, tell your parents. They will NOT allow it to continue.

Who called you bad dog

5. You are fully responsible for everything in your life. This is one of those things that may not be true, but works nonetheless. Oddly, if you accept full responsibility for who you are, what you do, and where you are in life, you will be a free person (even though you might think it would be the opposite). This is because if you are the moving force in your life, you have the power to change what you are doing. You can even change who you are.

On the other hand, if you view yourself as a victim of another person or of circumstances, you have no power over your life. Someone else is responsible for the bad stuff, or something happened to you and you are the hapless victim. This makes it really tough to get up and change things if you’re unhappy, because—“It’s not my fault! What can I do about it?” Thinking of yourself as a victim is the most dismal trap of all because you are the jailer.

The next time you find yourself in a situation you don’t like, instead of blaming someone or something else, ask yourself what it was that you did or didn’t do to get yourself there. This can be an uncomfortable exercise, but it will save you a ton of trouble later.

6. Don’t give negative people real estate in your soul. This kind of harks back to not worrying about what other people think, but it’s a bit of a different angle. Most of us at one time or another have found ourselves angrily or bitterly chewing over what someone else said or did that hurt us. That actually gives power to that person, or as I put it, gives them “real estate in my soul.”

negative people


So if you have a friend who said something mean, or a coworker who started a rumor about you, evict them. Don’t give them power over you. Don’t think about them, don’t react to them, don’t behave any differently. Your soul is your own.

7. Choose to be kind. All people are struggling with something. If you have a choice between being kind or unkind, be kind. Not everyone deserves it, but you’ll feel better about yourself. But don’t continue to be kind to people who are unkind or ungrateful to you. Just get them out of your life.


8. Adolescence is confusing to everyone. If you are reading this as a teenager, you have probably had some doubts about who you are, if you “fit in,” what you’re going to do with your life, why your parents are such jerks (they aren’t, but no doubt you have had some thoughts along these lines), your sexuality, your sanity, your attractiveness (How attractive am I?), and so on. You know that super-confident, super-good-looking, super-talented, super-popular person in your school? He or she is thinking all these things, too, because nobody escapes.


The pain and confusion does not last. It will go away, You will figure it all out. Stay busy—it’s the best cure for the blues.

9. I know from experience that it isn’t easy or comfortable to follow your own road when everyone else is going in another direction. But it’s more important to follow your own preferences and instincts than it is to be trendy (in terms of basic happiness, anyway). The cool clothes today won’t look wonderful on every body type. The cool dudes in high school often wind up mediocre losers in adulthood (not all of them, of course). It’s hard to stick to your own path because being considered weird and different hurts, especially when you are young. I guarantee you that you won’t care much when you are older.


If the current trends are where you’re comfortable and happy, great. But if the latest thing in dresses makes you look like a giraffe with a thyroid problem, don’t wear them—wear something that makes YOU look good. If everyone is listening to Evil Skink headbanger music but you prefer Baroque chamber music, go with what gives you pleasure. If you like romantic comedies but everyone else thinks they’re “stupid,” why should you care? Go with what your heart and soul desire.

10. Have lots of love in your life. Love yourself. Love your family, Love your friends. Love your pets. Love your passions. You can’t ever run out of love, so spend it freely. Yes, you will get hurt. People and pets die. A person you love and trust may betray you. Some beloved endeavors will not work out. But you will always be the richer for having loved.


And then there’s romantic love. Young love is mostly agonizing. There’s all the insecurity of “Does he/she love me?” “What did he/she mean by that?” “Why is he/she talking to him/her?”

All I can say is, fall in love with a good person. There are lots of damaged people out there, and some of them are incredibly attractive and enticing. You can’t help being attracted, but you can help becoming emotionally entrapped by someone who does not have your best interests at heart. Find someone who shares at least some of your interests and is willing to put up with the rest. Find someone who wants the best for you and is willing to help you get it. Find someone who is kind. Find someone with integrity who is honest about their feelings. Find someone who loves you for your imperfections as well as your strengths. And then be that person for them in return.


If by some misfortune you choose someone who does not have those characteristics, free yourself as quickly as possible. Nothing can bring you down faster than a lover who doesn’t really love you. And you deserve to be loved!

11. Stuff is just stuff. So many people spend their lives acquiring stuff—houses, cars, jewelry, clothing—and then they spend their time and money upgrading their stuff. When they die, other people take some of their stuff and throw the rest away. Possessions alone never made anyone happy or fulfilled, but people keep trying. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things. There’s nothing wrong with having money. But acquisition for acquisition’s sake or for the sake of status never once resulted in real happiness.

Spend your time pursuing activities that make you happy, being with people who make you happy, developing talents that make you happy.

12. Negative emotions are destructive. Jealousy will destroy a relationship even when there is no cause. Anger drives people further apart. Resentment poisons love. We all feel negative emotions from time to time, but giving them houseroom will mess you up.

If you’re furious with someone, try not to engage until you’ve calmed down; you’ll get better results. If you’re jealous because your boy/girl friend is talking to someone else, let it go. If you find out that you have a reason to be jealous, don’t be jealous—either work it out with your lover or end the relationship, but don’t let jealousy eat away at your sense of self worth. View negative emotions as red flags: they are trying to tell you something, but don’t get carried away by them.

13. Think of your life as a work of art. Yes, you will make mistakes—all great artists make mistakes, and part of their greatness is how they incorporate mistakes into the work, thereby creating something even more amazing. Pursue your interests. Give generously of yourself, because that energy will return to you many times over. Love deeply. Create a path for your life and follow it—taking interesting side trips as they arise, of course. At the end, I hope you will look back on your life with satisfaction as a life that wasn’t perfect, but was well lived.

Your Nana loves you always.