I had an adventure today. I visited the Meow Wolf Collective in Santa Fe, NM. I knew it was a huge experiential art installation but I had no idea what to expect. It was like a mad mashup of Disneyland, something Tim Burton might have done, Rivendell, a children’s museum, Harry Potter, the Twilight Zone, Salvadore Dali, and a Ray Bradbury story. And yet, I have fallen woefully short of describing it with any accuracy.
The centerpiece of the experience is a recreation of a Victorian house, but it isn’t made to look like a haunted house or anything. It’s a full-sized, two-story house contained in what used to be a bowling alley. It is surrounded by many other exhibits, but let’s start here. Inside the house, each room appears fairly normal, bar the dim lighting. But there is always something odd, weird or just strange about every room. Open the closet door in an upstairs bedroom and there is a corridor leading to a cavern adorned with stalactites and crystals with a glowing mammoth skeleton seemingly embedded in the rock. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom has glass vials full of herbs, while the prescription bottles have hilarious instructions for use. The floor tiles wave underfoot.
In one room, an artist is painting a canvas. In the kitchen, open the refrigerator door to find a passage to made-up destinations, directions to which are provided by a hologram. (Yes, you can go to these destinations.) The art on the walls is sometimes mundane, and sometimes seriously strange or even disturbing.
Surrounding the house are ramps and Rivendell-like vines, flowers, and glowing…things. You can walk across a bridge from the balcony of the house to a recreation of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed cottage. There is a tunnel of video screens, a room full of crustaceans, tree fungi that glow and make drum noises when you pat them. There’s a light harp made of laser beams that plays notes when the beams are interrupted. There’s a room with a 15-foot-high rabbit with glowing eyes that reminded me of “Donny Darko.” Every surface is textured, painted, glowing, or interesting in some way.
One of the things I most appreciated about Meow Wolf was its complete lack of the sneering negativity so often expressed by modern art. The experience was positive, exciting, surprising, intriguing, and sometimes puzzling, and it made me extremely happy. Meow Wolf received seed funding from G.R.R. Martin, author of “Game of Thrones'” who lives in Santa Fe. I would love to see other such experiential art installations in other cities that have an innovative and creative spirit.
By the way, Meow Wolf is fantastic for kids. They can touch and explore and discover to their hearts’ content. There is also an art exploration area exclusively for children.
After all this specific description, I feel I have completely failed to describe Meow Wolf. Here’s some pictures–I’m sure they’ll give you a better idea. Maybe. Go there. You will not be disappointed.
Recently I finished editing the first draft of “Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror.” I sent it off to my alpha readers and editor, and I can finally relax and think about something else for a while.
Such as promoting “The Obsidian Mirror.” While I was in the throes of writing the sequel, I did next to nothing about promoting my published work. A writer’s work is never done, I guess.
Why should you read “The Obsidian Mirror”? Short answer: because it’s a fun read. I read largely for entertainment. I like books that take you away and let you live someone else’s life for a while. I wrote “Obsidian” to be that kind of book: a diversion, a book I would love reading myself. It’s probably not a coincidence that the second publisher of the book is Diversion Books—they specialize in just that kind of novel.
Another reason to read “Obsidian” is because it is based on the mythologies and folklore of the Americas, which makes it a bit different. The idea occurred to me after finishing one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I loved the book, but started wondering why so much fantasy is based on proto-European, pre-Industrial Age tropes such as elves, faeries, dragons, and caped adventurers. The Americas have thousands of mythologies, folk tales and traditions that are largely ignored by fantasy writers.
I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror” as a kind of personal experiment. Meso-American gods and Coyote the Trickster, an Inuit ice demon and a mannegishi named Fred are some of the characters. What I did not anticipate is that I would fall in love with my characters and be driven to finish the book. Having done that, I felt compelled to get it published.
I don’t have much to brag about. I’m not a best-selling author. I have won no prestigious awards for my fiction writing. But I do have one thing that gives me modest bragging rights.
I have heard authors talk about receiving hundreds of rejection slips. One writer said he had a drawer filled with 450 rejection slips for his novel. That didn’t happen with “The Obsidian Mirror.” I approached perhaps 10 publishers and/or agents before AEC Stellar agreed to publish the book. When AEC Stellar bit the dust, I approached about five publishers before Diversion Books picked it up, re-published it and agreed to publish the sequel.
So I may not have sold a million copies, but I never had any problem finding a publisher. As a matter of fact, years after I originally submitted the manuscript to their slush pile, Baen Books got back to me and said they were interested in it. The early bird gets the book, Baen.
So why am I proud of this? Because I have some independent assessments that people will enjoy reading my novel. Add to that, the several four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and you might conclude that you would enjoy it, too. To make it super-easy for you to find the book, here it is: http://amzn.to/1MQBvkd
I did warn you.
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.
When this you spy
And think of me that is very shy.
When this you see
And think of me that thinks of thee.
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.
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!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DIVERSION BOOKS RESCUES THE OBSIDIAN MIRROR, RELEASES NEW VERSION OF FANTASY NOVEL
May 15, 2015—Diversion Books today released The Obsidian Mirror, an inventive high tech-meets-Aztec fantasy novel by Silicon Valley public relations veteran K.D. Keenan, marking the second time the novel has been issued in less than a year.
Diversion Books, which publishes a number of classic fantasy authors—including Ursula K. Le Guin, M.K. Wren and Henry Kuttner—scooped up the title after its original publisher, AEC Stellar Publishing, went out of business. “The Obsidian Mirror is a terrifically fun read,” said acquiring editor Laura Duane. “It recalls the wit and invention of Douglas Adams, and fits perfectly with many of our other fantasy titles.”
The Obsidian Mirror tells the story of Sierra Carter, an out-of-work PR executive who receives a call from Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of the Aztecs, and discovers that her former firm’s semiconductors are a means of spreading a deadly evil around the world. Powering these nasty vibes is Necocyaotl, Aztec god of death and destruction, who has placed his essence in every device, causing people to place their self-interest and selfish desires above all else.
Carter, with the help of some paranormal pals—Chaco, a handsome young man when he isn’t being a coyote; Fred, the mannegishi with the ability to disappear at will; and Rose, a Native American shaman—learns how to develop her inner powers. She’ll need them, because Necocyaotl’s team is playing for keeps, and the evil god brings an ice demon, dark spirits, and assorted monsters into the game to bolster his more human henchmen.
ABOUT DIVERSION BOOKS:
Founded in 2010, Diversion Books has emerged as a premier digital publishing house, partnering with top literary agencies, media companies, and authors to build a rapidly -growing catalog across a range of genres. With its cutting-edge marketing and versatility in the changing landscape, Diversion proudly publishes top-tier authors old and new, building the next generation publishing company, one great book at a time.
FOR MEDIA QUESTIONS, PLEASE CONTACT:
Seth Kaufman, Sales & Media Strategist
When I first started this blog, the subtitle was “A Blog about Writing a Novel.” I thought of it as a journal documenting the process of writing my first novel and trying to get it published. Of course, at the time, I had no idea whether I would get it published (or even finished).
Well, “The Obsidian Mirror” was finished and published, and now will be republished by Diversion Books. (They are giving it a new cover as well, which should be interesting. I can’t wait.) I have a contract for the sequel from Diversion, and I have written about 20% of the first draft.
So it’s no longer a blog about writing a novel. It’s about the journey I am on as an author. I have changed the subtitle to “The Journey to Authorship.”
Now, that sounds like I will be forever journeying toward a goal, but never reaching it. That would be exactly right.
I learned a huge amount about writing a novel when I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” I revised it eight times. I had many people read it and comment on it, including the wonderful Gail Z. Martin, who has authored numerous fantasy novels herself.
Now I am trying to put those lessons to good use in the sequel. I am also trying out new things. For example, the antagonist in “Fire in the Ocean” (working title) is not an evil god. He’s not even evil. As a reader, I am much more interested in complex characters than cardboard cutouts, but as a writer, it’s really easy to fall into the mistake of making evil characters 100% evil, twiddling their mustachios and laughing, “BWAHAHAHAH!” (Okay, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.) So I am trying to create a more complex character, one who is human, with human strengths and weaknesses, whose actions are not motivated by pure nastiness.
I have to admit, this is a bit scary for me, and I am proceeding with this character in baby steps. But, as in “The Obsidian Mirror,” I am still trying to understand why perfectly normal people do massively destructive things to the environment—even though they have to live the consequences along with the rest of us.
Another challenge is the setting in Hawai’i. “The Obsidian Mirror” was set in Silicon Valley, where I lived and worked for more than 30 years, so I knew it very well. I have visited Hawai’i many times and love it, but I am not as intimately familiar with it as I am with Silicon Valley. I spent eight days on Moloka’i, where much of the novel takes place, but eight days doesn’t make me an expert. Fortunately, I made some friends in Moloka’i while I was there, and I am hoping they will help to correct any inaccuracies or general idiocies I may commit.
So I am still learning and stretching my authorial wings. I am on a journey I suspect I will never complete, because I hope always to be learning more about my craft and growing as a writer. If I stop doing that, I will stop writing.
Today, I was going to write about some good news, but then the sad news arrived: Terry Pratchett died.
I have written about Pratchett before in these pages because he is one of my best-loved authors. He was a fantasy writer who was also a brilliant satirist and humorist of the highest order. Reading a new Pratchett book was for me as richly satisfying as artisan chocolate, and it lasted a good deal longer. (Plus I can go back and re-experience the books, which is hard, not to say disgusting, when chocolate is involved.)
Pratchett used his fantasy creation, the Discworld, to satirize our absurdities in this world. Nothing was off-limits for him. Personally, I think one of his finest pieces was “Monstrous Regiment,” which satirized bias against women and the absurdity of religion, which are deeply interconnected. Unlike fellow satirist and countryman Evelyn Waugh, Pratchett never indulged in invective; instead he made you laugh. And when you laugh, you become more open. And becoming open to new perspectives is how hearts and minds get changed.
There are, according to Wikipedia, 41 novels in the Discworld series. Pratchett also wrote several other novels, including “Good Omens” with the luminous Neil Gaiman, a series of children’s books, “The Long Earth” series with Stephen Baxter, and numerous handy guides to Discworld, short stories, and more. There’s a lot more to say about this man. He was awarded an O.B.E. and later knighted, so he is officially Sir Terry Pratchett. He suffered from a particularly vicious form of Alzheimer’s disease for eight years, and bore it with humor and bravery. He was deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of the British Isles, and commented to a meeting of folklorists that he viewed folklore much as a carpenter views trees. Wikipedia has an exhaustive amount of material on Pratchett and also his novels, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here–but he was a man of many parts.
I enjoy everything Pratchett wrote, but Discworld holds a special place in my heart (me and millions of others). He created a world so rich in detail, teeming with fascinating characters and creatures, that a return to Discworld was a richly enjoyable experience every time. I love his witches, especially grumpy and wise old Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who had a lively girlhood and likes her pint or two. I love brave Captain Carrot, the 6 foot-plus dwarf who is the unacknowledged King of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest and (probably) most noisome city. And Lord Vetinari, the ultimate politician who always manages to keep things on course without too much bloodshed. And Death, who always SPEAKS IN CAPITALS (and has the last word). In Discworld, you meet hundreds of characters who are so beautifully drawn that they leave the mark of their personalities with you forever.
But the real reason I cried when I heard he had died is because he was kind to me once. I have related this before, but here it is again:
You see, I met Connie Willis first. I was in the vendors’ hall at Worldcon when it came to San Jose, CA several years ago. I happened to glimpse her nametag. Connie Willis is also a favorite author, so I introduced myself—and proceeded to commit every rabid-fan sin it is possible to commit in attempting to praise her work. Even as I heard the vapid words burbling out of my mouth, I knew I was doomed. The expression of pain on Ms. Willis’ face only confirmed my gauche blundering. I attempted to extricate myself by saying, “Well, I’m starting to drool on you, so I guess I’d better go now.” Ms. Willis nodded mute agreement, and I slunk away with my tail between my legs, feeling like a complete moron.
I was standing at a vendor’s stall wondering if it is possible to actually die of embarrassment when a tidy gentleman with a gray beard and a black fedora walked up. I thought he looked familiar, but when the vendor called him “Mr. Pratchett,” my suspicions were confirmed. He stood right next to me as the vendor handed him a CD, saying, “I’ve been saving this for you, but I was afraid I might come across as a rabid fan.” (Like me, I thought.)
Pratchett took the CD and said, “I adore rabid fans!”
I turned to him and said, “Well, then, would you mind if I drooled on your shoulder?”
Pratchett responded, “Not at all—but would you mind drooling on this shoulder”—he patted his right shoulder—“as the other one is already rather damp?”
Instantly, the oppressive cloud of feeling foolish lifted and disappeared. I will never forget how Terry Pratchett’s humor and kindness brightened my day and turned my embarrassment into laughter. (Not that I mean to say Connie Willis made me feel bad. I made myself feel bad. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.)
And now this kind, brilliant, prolific and amazing writer is gone. There will be no more tales of Discworld to anticipate with glee. His brilliance continues to shine in his work, which will live for a long, long time. He set a high standard for humanity. I only hope that someday we live up to it.
I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s “Folklore of Discworld,” co-written with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson. (Do people actually get paid for knowing about folklore? What a great job!) Pratchett and Simpson discuss the relationship between the Discworld’s traditions and those of Earth (with the conceit that folklore, tropes and memes are particles of inspiration that drift across the multiverse, so that myths of Discworld wind up here, and vice versa).
While reading (actually listening to) this book, it struck me how deeply I am attracted to the folklore of the British Isles (although this is obviously not a particularly rare trait, as evidenced by libraries full of epic fantasies, tales of witches and warlocks, dragons and cloaked heroes and faeries). Nothing entranced me more as a child than tales of banshees, pookahs, faeries, disappearing gold pieces, leprechauns, elves and pixies. As an adult, I am still entranced by Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, G.R.R. Martin, and many less well known authors who write in that tradition—whether humorous or not. It’s one of the reasons I adore Pratchett, who once remarked that he regarded folklore much as a carpenter regards trees.
Why be so attracted to the folklore of another place? I could put it down to my Scots-Irish ancestry. But I think the real explanation is that the folklore of my own time and place is sparse and rather unimaginative. Perhaps if I had grown up in Louisiana or some place with more history than California, I would have a healthy backlog of swamp critters, ghosts, haunted mansions, and eerie sightings to freshen the imagination. As it is, I am hard put to say exactly what constitutes folklore here.
Sure, we told each other the stories about the guy and girl making out in the car who hear on the radio about the escaped madman with a hook for a hand. And step on a crack, break your mother’s back. (As this never happened, I didn’t believe it for long.) But these things lacked the enchantment I found in fairy stories and old tales from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Witches, warlocks and wizards. Spirit horses. Water nymphs. Faery gold. Selkies. Leaving milk out for the Good Folk. Strange dancing lights on the moors at night. The Wild Hunt. King Arthur.
An incredibly high percentage of American “folklore” has disappointingly mundane origins. Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox, Babe, appears to have originated in the oral tradition of lumberjacks, but according to Wikipedia, was “later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally a promotional character created for Montgomery Ward. Pecos Bill was a character created by short story writer Edward S. O’Reilly in the early 20th Century. Johnny Appleseed was a real person, John Chapman, but all he did was plant apple trees, not conjure gold and silver apples or something interesting like that. Santa Claus comes closest to having true folkloric origins, but in America, even he was largely shaped by modern forces in the form of Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823:
“His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself…”
Moore changed the majesty of Father Christmas, a tall, thin gentleman wreathed with holly and robed in green, into a “right jolly old elf,” later immortalized in his modern incarnation by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Moore also invented the eight tiny reindeer, which were not found in the stable of Father Christmas.
Where’s the magic in all this? Sadly lacking, in my opinion. Our modern American monsters are the psychopaths, serial killers, stalkers of children, terrorists real and imagined, and that guy with the hook, who may be folkloric, but he’s not very magical. Our urban legends may technically be folklore, but flashing your headlights getting you in trouble with gangs, or tapeworm eggs in bubble gum, or waking up in a bath of ice with your kidneys missing falls well short of enchantment.
I will admit that we Americans have our share of cryptozoids. Probably the leading examples of this are Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and El Chupacabra (the goatsucker). El Chupa is an import from Mexico, where apparently they are so folklore-rich that some of it is oozing across the border. None of these to my knowledge is actually magic; it’s just that no one has ever proved they exist, so of course, lots of people believe in them. Here’s a map of North American cryptozoology, if you’re interested in more.
And, of course, there’s a lot of flying saucer lore. But I don’t think any of the anal probees would say that there was magic involved.
As I mentioned before, it may depend on where you grew up. In Hawaii it is clear that many ethnic Hawaiians (and also many non-ethnic Hawaiians) believe in the old lore. I met people who believe in ghosts, in Pele and other ancient gods, in Menehune, and in spirits generally, both good and evil.
Magic offers the possibility of the good and brave and clever overcoming evil or at least magical trickery, whereas our monsters are sometimes overcome by the judicial system (and sometimes not). Magic also casts a glamor over folk tales; in fact the word “glamor” used to mean magic or enchantment. Our “folk” heroes are artificially created to make money—although they are still presented to schoolchildren as though they were genuine. I suppose Pratchett would say that when people start to believe in something, it transforms that thing into folklore. But no one really believes in Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Thank heaven, some children still believe in Santa Claus, and around a campfire at night, you can believe anything. But I still think we are a culture that is sorely deprived of a true folkloric element.
Do you agree or disagree? Did you hear a truly magical (and American) story when you were a child? Did you have a haunted house on your street where lights and music could be heard at night? Were tales of helpful pixies or harmful sprites told in your neighborhood?
I would love to hear from you if you have such stories to tell!
Tom really is a hero. He agreed to drive the steep, winding, one-lane road back to Halawa Valley so that we could visit the beach there and maybe hike to the waterfalls. He surprised me–and this is after 43 years of marriage.
The drive was spectacular, and we stopped to take photos of things we remembered, but hadn’t stopped for the first time because of unfamiliarity with the road. For instance, there’s this sign:
Nene (pronounced nay-nay) are the native Hawaiian geese, and they are endangered. Sadly, we didn’t see any geese, just the sign. We also saw this, which we think is a roadside memorial, but it’s a bit different than the usual. In addition to the sun made of white coral, there were offerings:
There was no one waiting at the bottom of the road this time. We parked and walked down the dirt road to the beach. There is a river flowing into the sea here, and it’s picturesque:
We picked our way along the beach, and I saw what I expected; lots of small pieces of plastic in the sand, white and blue, black and gray, yellow and red–the detritus of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collecting on this remote beach. I began picking up the larger pieces and putting them in my pocket. by the time we left, both pockets were bulging, and my arms were full of still larger chunks, bottles, and a small section of plastic fence. Tom gently makes fun of my plastic policing, but I regard it as the little that I can do to make it better. Worth nothing in the face of the magnitude of the problem, I agree. And many of the pieces were so small as to be impossible to retrieve, reminding me of “Rumplestiltskin,” where the poor girl has to count all the grains of sand or spin straw into gold.
A Hawaiian family was picnicking on the beach. A young woman named Noni (noh-nee, means “beautiful”) was sitting on the sand, while her sister, husband and nephew were on the rocky point under the cliffs, fishing. We chatted for a while, and then her husband came back with a net bag full of ‘opihi (oh-pee-hee, limpets). We asked what they were going to do with them, and he said they were best barbecued, but could be eaten right out of the shell. Did we want to try one?
Yes, we did. He had lost his knife while prying ‘opihi off the rocks, but he used one limpet shell to dislodge the resident of another shell, and offered us some. They were rubbery, and the primary taste was a mild saltiness, but I’m sure they are delicious barbecued. This inside of the shell had a lovely iridescence, tinged with green. I washed mine out and brought it home with me.
We asked about the hike to the falls. Noni said it was really difficult, and she hadn’t done it in 20 years, so we decided to give it a miss. (Later, I learned that it takes two hours just to get there. I probably made the right decision.) After dumping my collected plastic in the trash bins provided, we got into our car and drove slowly back, taking pictures as we went.
Once we were back in two-lane country again, we stopped to take a picture of this:
I called it “chicken condos,” as they appear to be individual shelters for chickens or roosters. As I was taking the picture, a pack of dogs ran up to the fence and barked their heads off. A very large Hawaiian came down the drive, looking rather menacing. I waved and said I was just taking a picture of his chickens. He didn’t smile, but waved more or less amicably and went back down the drive. My guess is that he’s raising fighting cocks, which is abhorrent, but I don’t know.
We also stopped at a grove of coconut palms, right outside of Kaunakakai. This used to be a much larger grove called “the Queen’s Grove,” because it was planted for the wife of King Kamehameha V. It’s right by the beach, and the trees must be 100 feet tall, each with a cluster of coconuts clinging to the top under its fronds. There are piles of coconuts on the ground, both fresh, green ones and old, hairy ones. The top of my head began to feel peculiarly vulnerable as I imagined what a coconut would do to it after a drop of 100 feet, so I left.
Then back to the condo. I was very behind in my journaling, so spent most of the late afternoon writing, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks nearby, and enjoying the trade winds. When we went to bed, another three-inch centipede was occupying the hallway upstairs, and I gave him the same treatment I gave Jesse the Centipede a few nights ago–a beating with my flip-flop. Neither centipede put up a fight, making me think they were unwell to begin with.
And so the journey came to an end, as all journeys must do–which is the beginning of another journey for me; writing a new novel. The entire experience was amazing. People were so helpful and kind, so willing to bring me into their lives a little bit. It was extremely touching, and I will never forget the experiences I had here. As a parting wave, here are the signs that greet new arrivals to Moloka’i, and bid departing travellers farewell:
Day 14: Molokai
This was our snorkeling day, so we set our alarm. We had to be at the Kaunakakai Wharf by 6:45. We ate a quick breakfast and set out in the dark. We could see the bright lights at the tiny Molokai airport as well as the wharf as we came down the rise from the west end of the island; Molokai is only 38 miles long from the west end to the east.
I thought Tom should leave his camera in the car. It is large (especially the lenses) and heavy, and I was afraid it might get damaged or get water in it. So no pictures, but I’ll post a few photos of the kinds of fish we saw, even if they aren’t the actual fish we met.
We drove straight out onto the wharf and parked near our boat, the Coral Queen. A young Hawaiian man told us nicely not to park there or we would get a ticket. This turned out to be Gabe, the boat’s one crewman. He would take the divers down while the captain kept an eye on the snorkelers.
This was a surprise. Diving implied deep water, so I asked about it. The captain (whose name I failed to remember) said they had more than 40 different places to take people, depending on whether they had a mixed group (snorkelers and divers), or just one or the other, and of course depending on tides, currents and weather.
There were about a dozen of us. They waited a while for some latecomers who never showed, then set out along the eastern shore in the dawn light. On our way out, they pointed out a handsome white yacht moored offshore and said it was Larry Ellison’s.
The Molokaiians are very hopeful about Mr. Ellison, the fifth wealthiest man in the world, and the founder and former CEO of Oracle Corporation. As you may know, he bought the entire island of Lanai a little while ago (98% of it, anyway). The people of Lanai have been very happy with the changes he has brought to that island, and the Molokaiians are hopeful that he will buy up the now-idle holdings of the Molokai Ranch. This would certainly make a huge difference; it remains to be seen if it’s a difference the people of Molokai will like. They have a slogan here: “Don’t change Molokai, let Molokai change you.”
It was calm, quite unlike the first few days we were here. It was interesting to try to locate landmarks on shore that we had earlier seen from the road, but we never got as far as Leimana’s fishpond.
Someone asked about sharks. Gabe said they tended to see black-tipped reef sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads, scalloped hammerheads, and tiger sharks.
I said, “I don’t mind black tips, and I have swum with them, but the others…tell me that there won’t be any sharks out there today.”
Gabe struggled with his conscience for a moment, then looked straight at me and said, “There won’t be any sharks out here today.”
Bless the boy. I am sure I would have to change my bathing suit if I saw a hammerhead. Or any other shark, for that matter.
We saw humpback whales as we chugged along. They never came very close, but we did see them spouting and breaching a little ways off.
Eventually, we anchored (using a special anchor to avoid damaging the coral) and the captain pointed out the area the divers would explore, and further toward shore, the snorkelers’ area. As we were preparing to go in, a manta ray swam slowly next to the boat–the first I have ever seen.
As I flapped my way to the stern in my fins, a woman in a shortie wetsuit said with surprise, “No wetsuit?” I was surprised by the question. This was Hawaii, right? Who needs a wetsuit? They had them aboard the Coral Queen, but it hadn’t occurred to me to don one. I penguined onto the platform that had been lowered from the stern and fell backward into the water. It felt fine, neither warm nor especially cool. Tom joined me and we headed out.
Molokai is surrounded by a fringe reef that extends outward from the island a long way. You could walk out a mile in some places and still be in water up to your knees. We were probably a mile and a half from shore, in water that was about 12 feet deep. There were lots of fish to gawk at–schools of goatfish and convict tangs, triggerfish, butterflyfish of several varieties, bird and rainbow wrasses, pink and silver juvenile parrotfish, mature rainbow parrotfish (a blaze of different colors), and one humu-humu-nuku-nuku-a’pu’a’a. I am never quite content snorkeling until I see this dapper little fish with his colorful suit and enormously long name.
To my surprise, my hands began to get numb and they turned white (whiter than they usually are, that is). That had never happened before while snorkeling. I didn’t think we had been out more than a half an hour, but I told Tom I wanted to go in. He agreed and we headed back to the boat–to find that we had been out an hour and fifteen minutes, and it was time to go anyway.
It appeared that we were going to go to another spot to explore. I felt quite chilled and decided not to get back in.
I struck up a conversation with Gabe. Tom had discovered that Gabe was a third cousin to Leimana, so I mentioned this and said we had enjoyed our time with Leimana at the fishpond.
“Yeah, he’s really something, isn’t he, with his thing…” Gabe indicated the swimsuit zone.
“Malo,” I said helpfully.
“…malo, and you can see his whole butt hanging out,” said Gabe.
“Well, to give credit where credit is due,” I said, “It’s a nice butt.”
Gabe looked profoundly shocked. I guess he thought pudgy old ladies were past appreciating these things, or perhaps he had never viewed his third cousin in that light.
I went forward to sit in the sun and get warm. This felt great, and my hands got warm again. However, after a bit, I felt my Irish skin had had as much solar exposure as was wise, and went back under cover. While I was sunning, though, I saw a huge turtle swim by under the deep turquoise water. He swam slowly, balletically, and I watched him until he disappeared into the depths.
While we were waiting for the others, we chatted with the captain. He had been a “bean-counter,” his words, in Minnesota. He used to come to Hawaii on vacation, and finally realized he didn’t have to live in Minnesota.
“Why Molokai?” we asked.
“It was the last island I visited,” he said.
He bought Molokai Fish and Dive, then bought the gas station next door. (Giving us the opportunity to buy gasoline at a filling station called Fish and Dive.) We commented on the high prices in the islands. Gas in our area is now close to $2 a gallon, but in Hawaii, it is more than $4. He told us that their prices were dependent on the last tanker, and they didn’t change until the next one arrived. I noticed that Fish & Dive gas prices were identical to the one other station on Molokai, a Chevron.
The divers and snorkelers came back raving about the wonders they had seen–turtles, mantas, even a sleeping white-tipped reef shark. Someone said that the water seemed warmer at this spot, and the captain said, “Yes, it is. There are freshwater springs back at the other place that make it colder.”
I said, “It would’ve been nice of you to have mentioned that an hour ago.”
But I think staying out of the water at the second location was the right decision. After we came back, Tom and I were exhausted. We had lunch at the Kualapu’u Cookhouse, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I had fried saimin with vegetables, which proved to also have Spam and fake crab in it. Spam, in case you aren’t aware, is a favorite here in the islands. If you are eating in an establishment frequented by locals, you will find it on the menu.
I fell asleep on the ride home, and as soon as we rinsed ourselves and our equipment, we both fell into bed and slept the sleep of the truly depleted. We awoke in the early evening, forced ourselves to cook dinner (we had purchased grass-fed beef from the Molokai Meat Cooperative), ate it, and went gratefully to bed without doing the dishes.
Day 10: Moloka’i
I awoke about 6:00 am, as I have been doing for a while. It was still dark. I went downstairs to make some excellent Moloka’i-grown coffee, then began writing, trying to catch up on our adventures with Leimana. We didn’t have to be at the fishpond until noon, so there was plenty of time to write, for once.
The drive to the fishpond is about an hour. There aren’t a lot of roads on Moloka’i, and no stop lights at all. The pace of life here is relaxed, and people are patient. Vehicles always stop if you are trying to cross the road. When you pass someone on the road, you wave whether you know them or not. People always say hi when they encounter you (or aloha). When you ask for directions or information, they drop everything to attend to you. It’s very like New Zealand in that respect. Not that the people of the other Hawaiian Islands are unfriendly or rude; there’s just a lot more “aloha” on Moloka’i. (Aloha means hello and goodbye, but it also means “love.”)
We arrived a little after noon. Leimana, in malo and fishhook necklace, was at the pond waiting for us. His first lesson was a lot of Hawaiian words. I did not retain all of them, but I did get a few questions answered.
I didn’t ask these questions; Leimana never answered a direct question with a direct answer. But he inadvertently defined the difference between “mauka” and “mauna,” both of which I understood to mean mountain. As it turns out, mauna, as in Mauna Loa, the volcano, means big mountain. Mauka (as in the common usage “mauka-side,” or toward the mountains), means smaller mountain. Then there were words for successively smaller hills and mounds, which I don’t remember. Except for pu’u, meaning a small hill, but this is used for other things, as we shall see.
Leimana was writing these words in the sand with a stick. He has lovely, clear sandwriting, like a schoolteacher.
I also had been wondering what a pi-pi-pi looked like. Pi-pi-pi means “small-small-small.” In Hawaiian, when a word is repeated, it creates an emphasis. So pi-pi-pi means extremely small. I knew they were a small mollusk that people ate. Leimana had a number of of these clinging to the walls of the fishpond. They are small black sea snails. (I told you I was nuts about shells.)
I asked about the clusters of coconuts at the fish gate. He gave me a rambling answer about coconuts symbolizing food, therefore home, therefore hospitality. I am beginning to understand that Hawaiian is a highly metaphorical language. All languages have metaphors (I think), but in Hawaiian, you might talk about the fishpond as a pu’u, small hill, because it is rounded, and because you might also call someone’s prominent belly pu’u, and the fishpond also fills the belly. Someone like me might easily misunderstand, but to a Hawaiian, it would be obvious.
Which means I have no hope of actually learning Hawaiian. Which is probably OK. I have promised myself for years now that the next language I learn will be Spanish, which is a much better choice in California.
Leimana also showed us some hula moves and explained what they mean. Hula that men perform is quite different from the gentle swaying of women’s hula. His movements were decisive, abrupt, masculine, conveying the blowing of wind, rough water, paddling a canoe, fighting–but nonetheless graceful. He said hula made him strong, so he could lift the rocks when repairing the fishpond. He also said hula was originally performed only by men. I asked when women started hula, but he told me to ask Auntie Opu’ulani. Another direct question successfully deflected.
Somehow, we got on the subject of the Pacific gyre, which is actually one of the reasons I’m in Hawaii. Leimana didn’t seem to know what that was, so I took his stick and illustrated how the currents in the Pacific form a gyre, an immense circular river in the sea. In this gyre, plastic has accumulated over the years from dumping, people leaving junk on beaches all over the Pacific, maritime accidents, carelessness, etc. This is all swirling around in the gyre, which is often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Wikipedia says of its size, “Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) (about the size of Texas) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or in some media reports, up to ‘twice the size of the continental United States'”.
When I first heard about this, I thought, “Someone could probably make money by scooping up the plastic and recycling it, and that would help clean it up.”
But there’s a catch. The plastic in the gyre has been broken up into tiny particles, some microscopic. It’s not as if someone can just scoop up the water bottles and sand buckets. And there are tons and tons of this stuff out there.
This enormous pile of particularized plastics is leaching chemicals into the water that are ingested or absorbed by sea life of all sorts, which means that it is coming back to us in the form of sea food. Fish and birds ingest particles, thinking they are food, which kills them.
And Hawaii is smack dab in the middle of this. There’s so much plastic out there that accretions of plastic, coral and rocks have started washing up on the once-pristine shores of the Hawaiian Islands. These have their own name, “plastiglomerates.” Kamilo Beach on the Big Island is littered with tons of garbage from the gyre because of the currents there.
I told Leimana that I wanted to use my next book to help educate people about the gyre and the tons of plastic in the ocean.
Leimana was horrified. “What can I do?” he asked.
“Don’t use plastic,” I replied, but there’s really nothing he can do. It will take an enormous effort and a lot of ingenuity to solve this problem. People are working on it–that’s the good news. The bad news is that we use plastic in increasing amounts all the time. It’s handy, cheap, and incredibly useful, and many people can’t afford alternatives. Check out the price of a nice wooden table and chairs for your toddler and then compare that to the price of a L’il Tykes set made of plastic. Price-wise, plastic wins every time.
Leimana pointed out a large rock, standing by itself in the ocean. He called it a honu (turtle). I figured there must be a mo’olelo there, and asked about it. Leimana told me about the tragic love between a woman from Kaulapapa (the peninsula where the leper colony was and is, but this was long before), and a man from the other side of Moloka’i. They each got in a canoe and tried to meet in the middle, but the sea was too rough and they wound up drowning. He never mentioned the role that the turtle rock played in this. (I found out later from someone else, but I can’t tell you. More on that in another post.)
During the course of the conversation, we discovered that the fishpond belongs to a “rich lady.” Apparently she is fine with Leimana living there–indeed, there are other ancient fishponds quite nearby, and it is clear that he has restored, maintained and improved the pond he uses, so why would she not? He doesn’t get paid to teach the children or the groups that come through to learn from him (although donations are cheerfully accepted). He gets a bit of money from the government, and otherwise lives on fishing, taro farming, eggs from a relative that keeps chickens, and so forth. It seems to me that he is more than repaying whatever he is given by preserving his culture and teaching it to others.
We finally parted. He offered to treat us to lunch, but I was afraid he meant to spend money on us, so declined. It was long past lunchtime, so we drove to a little grocery along the highway that had a food counter. It’s definitely a local hangout, called Goods ‘n Grinds. They offered deer burgers, the first I’ve seen so far, and we have tried pretty much every restaurant on the island by now. Though half the menu on offer was burgers, they were out of burgers that day. The special of the day was beef tostadas, and we each got one. We sat at a picnic table in the shade and ate our tostadas. The young lava-lava wearer of Halawa Valley drove up in a truck and we exchanged aloha. We also saw these gorgeous birds:
They look like cardinals wearing woodpecker costumes. They are, in fact, crested cardinals. I tempted them closer by throwing some tostada shell crumbs on the ground, which were also appreciated by the ubiquitous blue doves.
I wanted to see the forest park where the trail to Kalaupapa begins. We had no intention of hiking the trail, for reasons already stated, but I knew it was a forested upland area, and very different from the scrubby grasslands of the area where most of the island’s population lives. The road seems to climb gradually, but goes to about 2,000 feet above sea level, where it ends in Palau State Park. It ends for a good reason–the next step is 2,000 feet straight down.
There is an overlook at the top of the pala from which you can see Kalaupapa. It’s like being in an airplane, and you must be able to see a 100 miles or more out to sea.
This is one of those things Tom doesn’t like (though that may be an understatement). I was fine with it because there was a nice, substantial rock wall separating me from the drop. Tom sat with his back against a large tree, across the path that skirted the wall and declined to come any closer. I admired the view and took pictures.
We walked back to the parking lot through the pines. The pines are unusual, with soft needles fully a foot long, giving them a “Cousin It” appearance for those who remember “The Addams Family.” I had earlier seen some coil baskets made of these needles in a gift store. I have seen pine needle baskets before and admired them, but these needles must have been particularly well-suited to basketry. The two baskets in the otherwise junky gift store were very well made and decorated with small shells. The one about the size of a hummingbird’s nest was priced at $100, so it was safe from me.
It was also cool in the forest–so cool it made me wish I had worn warmer clothes (not that I have warm clothes with me.) As a matter of fact, it has never been uncomfortably warm and is often downright cool, especially at night.
Then we went to look at the other attraction up here. It was indicated by a sign that read, “Phallic Rock.” This trail, unlike the concrete path to the edge of the pali, was unimproved and rather rough. I regretted not having changed from flip-flops into walking shoes, but managed OK. Tom, believing we were getting near the pali again, decided to wait for me on the trail, but I went to the end.
Yup, it was kind of phallic all right:
Someone had left an offering in a bowl in the rock, carved either by man or nature. The rock is sacred to the Hawaiian people, who viewed sexual mana as powerful and beautiful. Ku, the chief god, also means “erect,” in every sense of the word, including standing tall agains aggression or oppression. I often see offerings left at heiau or other sacred places.
However, some asshole named Jesse carved his name into this rock. I can only imagine what his punishment will be. Probably he’ll be doomed to live his entire life as a stupid person, with all rights and privileges thereto. If I had my way, the centipede I mashed the other night was named Jesse.
The rock was nowhere near the edge of the pali. I picked my way carefully down the rough trail, but Tom wasn’t interested. Tom was interested in descending to lower, flatter ground.
Then we drove back into the metropolis of Kaunakakai to get some groceries, then back to the condo. We were actually too tired to cook again and made do with cheese and crackers. I was even too tired to write!