Yucatan: Day of the Iguanas

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

In the remote eventuality that anyone was disappointed that I haven’t been blogging about my research trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, I apologize. We were often in areas where the Internet service couldn’t handle large files, and I wanted to be able to post photos and videos, so I decided to wait.

Why Yucatán, you may ask? Well, for reasons I can’t reveal, the third book in the series that began with “The Obsidian Mirror” has to take place in Yucatán. The second book, “Fire in the Ocean,” will be out later this year from Diversion Books, and all will be explained. Well, some of it, anyway.

Day 1: Tulum

We made our way to Tulum on the Mayan Riviera without much problem. Our rental condo is located in a large tract of land not too far from the beach, called Aldea Zama. Aledea means village in Spanish and Zama is the Quiché (Mayan) word for dawn. It is also the original name for the Mayan city in the area, which is why we are here.

We ate dinner in a very good Argentinian restaurant, came back to the condo and fell into bed.

The next morning, we woke late, as it is East Coast time here, we’re from the West Coast, and we were tired. Breakfast, continuing the international theme, was crepes. We asked the waiter how far it was to walk to the ruins. He told us to walk straight down the road we were on for about four kilometers. So off we went. And continued for a long way, walking in the late morning heat and sunshine. We didn’t have a lot of water with us, and I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming dehydrated.

About three miles or so down the road there was an entrance to the beach and my husband Tom headed off across the sand, intending to walk the rest of the way on the beach. By this time, my enthusiasm had flagged, although I did appreciate the white sand, fine as sugar, and the brilliant turquoise and indigo of the ocean. Linda asked a woman how far it was, and we learned to our surprise that not only had we been directed down the wrong road, we were many miles from our destination because there was no access to the ruins from the road we were on or the beach.

We flagged down one of the passing taxis which took us to the ruins, all of us thankful we hadn’t tried to walk it. The entrance to the ruins is reached on foot or by a little tram pulled by an old tractor, and to my relief we took the tram. Before we embarked for the ruins, we saw a performance by a team of voladores. Four men climbed to the top of a 40-foot pole, playing instruments and dressed in colorful costumes. Once they reached the platform at the top of the pole, they wound ropes around the pole. Then a fifth man climbed the pole and seated himself, playing the flute as the other four men looped ropes around their legs, turned upside down, and spiraled down the pole as the ropes unwound from the pole. Wikipedia says this is a very old tradition, starting with the ancient Maya. It has deep cultural significance, and to prevent the tradition from dying out, Mexico started a school to teach children how to become voladores (females need not apply).

There is a large outdoor market around the ruins, but we went straight on without looking at the amazing array of goods, ranging from Los Luchos masks to delicately woven hammocks that looked like lace.

When we got to the ticket line, I wasn’t feeling too well, so I sat down on a bench near the front of the line. Along came a coatimundi–a relative of the raccoon that looks sort of lemur-like. She plopped herself down right among the tourists’ feet, rolled over and proceeded to give herself a bath, licking delicately at armpits and tummy. A man standing right next to her leaned down and tried to pet her. Tourists feed coatis all the time at Tulum, so assuming the man had food, the coati lunged at his fingers. Startled, the man jerked back and dropped his bottle of beer, which smashed on the stone flooring. The coati promptly began licking up the beer as the man cleaned up the glass. When last seen, the coati was cuddling in a woman’s skirt and continuing her bath, drunk and happy.

By this time, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. I felt utterly drained and frankly not very interested in touring the ruins. This is completely out of character for me, as I am interested in ancient Mayan culture and had come all the way from California just to see them. But I had no energy and was beginning to feel odd; I was getting chills despite the heat and felt slightly nauseous. I rested for a while in the shade, but the water was gone. There was no place to buy water inside the ruins. I dragged myself around the ruins anyway. I probably took more photos of the iguanas at the park than the ruins. Often, they lay sunning themselves in pairs like tiny prehistoric monsters; Mr.and Mrs. Iguana taking a sunbath. There were black iguanas, green iguanas, gray iguanas, and youngsters with stripes streaking around while the adults sunned. I finally found a place to sit and look at the ocean–narrowly missing stepping on an iguana–and stayed there until the rest of the party found me. Then all I wanted to do was leave. On the walk back to the tram I developed an aura, like the kind you get when a migraine is starting. My hips hurt in a way I have never experienced before, and I felt generally horrible.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

Tom got me a huge bottle of water, and after drinking a good bit of it, the aura went away. When we got to the open-air market, Linda saw a Starbucks and wanted iced tea. I noticed a vendor with adorably embroidered children’s dresses. He wanted $25 each. I wanted to get out of there and was not interested in bargaining, so I said no thanks and walked away. By the time I got out of earshot, he was down to $5 each, but I just didn’t care. This is also totally weird for me, because I adore haggling.

We took a taxi back to the condo. By the time we got back, I felt a great deal better, had a cold shower and took a nap. Lesson learned: take lots of water!

Despite getting dehydrated, I enjoyed the day. I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, and will be much more cautious about staying hydrated.






Cultural Appropriation Is Not a Thing


I have long been fascinated with other cultures, open to other traditions, and drawn to the beauty of other cultures’ art and expression. It seems to me that learning about other cultures is our best hope for creating a society that is open, tolerant, and inclusive.

Then I began hearing about “cultural appropriation.” Apparently adopting or adapting from cultures other than the culture one is born into is a huge bad thing because it demeans and commercializes the other cultures in question.

Whoa. All this time, I have been tolerating green beer, drunkenness, cries of “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” green plastic leprechaun hats, and corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, and I wasn’t even mildly offended. (You can travel the length and breadth of Ireland and never see corned beef and cabbage on any menu. Or on anyone’s home table, either. It’s actually something the Irish immigrants culturally appropriated from the Jewish immigrants in America. For the record, the Jews have not complained about this.)

But there’s more. How many movies, books, comics, etc. have you seen with fairies, pookah, banshees, elves, will ‘o the wisps and other culturally Irish (or Celtic) themes? A whole bunch, I bet. Do you hear Irish-American people complaining about it?

No, you do not. That’s because it doesn’t damage Irish culture for people to paint their faces green and get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. We may laugh at the gaucherie, but that’s all.

The argument that one culture can “steal” culture from another and thereby damage it is absurd. It’s equivalent to straight conservative people claiming that gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage. Yeah—every one of Newt Gingrich’s three marriages was sanctified.

I recently made sugar skulls with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Lilah. Lilah is Hispanic through her father, and I thought making sugar skulls would be a wonderful way to help her celebrate her heritage. In addition to making the skulls, I told her about the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, why they make the skulls, and the lovely tradition of picnicking in the graveyard to visit with the beloved dead and share with them the events of the past year. We posted pictures of our beautiful sugar skulls on Facebook to share our handiwork.


I was immediately accused of cultural appropriation, with a link to an article on how us gringos/gabachos are ruining the sugar skull tradition.

Well, first of all, I don’t like being called a gringa or gabacha. It was just rude, and not a very persuasive way to get white people to read the article. While I thought the article was well written and made some good points about bad behavior on the part of some white people, I still think cultural appropriation isn’t possible, like dry water.

Second, I believe that the more people know and appreciate about each other’s cultures, the better off we will all be. Discouraging friendly interest and participation on the part of “others” is just driving the wedge deeper between us all.

And above all there is art. Artists have been influenced by other cultures for thousands of years, and the synergy between cultural traditions has resulted in work of genius and beauty. What if Picasso had not been allowed to use the rhythmically angular and abstract themes of African art in his painting? Jazz and rock and roll synergize African and European ideas of music into fantastically creative new forms. And what if no one but the English were allowed to use the cadences and flowing language of Shakespeare, who has influenced every body of literature in the world? The Art Deco movement would not have existed without the early 20th century fascination with the stylized art of ancient Egypt. This is cultural synergy, not cultural appropriation, and we would all be the poorer if it didn’t go on every day of every year. Fortunately, you can’t stifle artists for very long.

I am not, of course, condoning disrespectful and boorish behavior like dressing up in a Native American headdress, making whooping noises, calling everyone “Chief,” and saying “How.” That’s ignorance and bad manners. But it is not cultural appropriation, because Native American culture has never been harmed by this. The person who is harmed is the jackass doing it.

The bushman in Africa is your brother. The Ainu woman in northern Japan is your sister. Each of us is genetically almost identical to every other human being on earth. We have everything to gain by sharing our traditions and cultures. We have everything to lose by erecting still more barriers between people.

By the way, on St Patrick’s Day, please help yourself to the green beer and shamrock cookies. I’m good with it.


The Home of My Heart

This is me, aged maybe 12, dressed up in old-timey clothes in the front hall of 16 Campbell. I can't remember why.

This is me, aged maybe 12, dressed up in old-timey clothes in the front hall of 16 Campbell. I can’t remember why.

My daughter went online a few weeks ago to look up the house I grew up in, a house she remembers with affection. It had been sold, and there were about 20 recent photographs of the house on one of the realty sites.

I scrolled slowly through the photos online, remembering, and I suddenly realized that I loved that house—still, after many decades of living in other houses—as though it were a human being. I hadn’t realized you could love a house with such warmth and tenderness, but this was no ordinary house. I’m going to call it 16 Campbell from now on because she deserves a name, and because that is how we all refer to her. Yes, I realize I am anthropomorphizing wildly here, and I am probably also being sappily sentimental. So be it.

I remember moving into 16 Campbell at the age of four and a half. It had been built by an architect renowned in my small Southern California hometown during its Victorian heyday as a resort for East Coast families seeking relief from icy winters. My parents bought it on the G.I. Bill from an elderly widow who was running it as a boarding house for other elderly widows. It was a white, Dutch Colonial-style house, shingle-sided, two-storied, crumbling gently atop a hill like a dowager duchess who has fallen on hard times.

Few, if any improvements had been made to the house since her debutante days. Because she had been intended as a vacation home, the floors were made of pine planks instead of hardwood, and us kids, running around barefoot all day, got many a splinter in our feet. My parents eventually got hardwood installed downstairs, but upstairs it was still wear shoes or expect tears. Plaster was crumbling, there were wasps in the attic, the curtains were tattered, and the kitchen was resolutely inconvenient.

Not that we kids cared. We soon came to know every inch of that house. It sat over a rarity in California: a basement. The basement was just a hole dug into the hard red dirt with no foundation, and it was both scary and fascinating. It could be reached either by an old-fashioned storm door from the outside, or via stairs that led down from the mudroom. The basement was full of arcane things. There was an electric reducing device that consisted of a huge steel box lined inside with light bulbs. A person was supposed to sit inside this box, and I suppose the heat of all those light bulbs made him or her sweat and thus “lose weight.” We were given strict orders not to touch this device, but it was a constant temptation until my parents had it removed.

There were also many trunks full of old clothes, letters, diaries and junk. One trunk held costumes from earlier eras, including fake moustaches and dried-up vials of “spirit gum” to apply them, a beaded silk cloche with the beads dropping off, a hoop skirt, a genuine Apache woman’s dress and beaded leather moccasins. Later, much later, we discovered a Civil War folding map table down there.

But that was not what made me love 16 Campbell. It was the house itself. Not everything that happened in that house was safe or pleasant, but the house felt protective and comforting. I played in the mud against its flank like a puppy rolling against the warm furry sides of its mother. I lay in bed, watching the patterns of leaves cast against the wall by the vines over my window, feeling safe. Whether I was building grass forts in the empty back lot or creating fairy feasts and leaving them in the roots of the gnarled pepper trees, or reading in the golden light that came through the living room’s bay window in the late afternoon, I felt the house’s protective presence around me. There was no part of the house that didn’t welcome me, and there were so many places to hide and be by myself when I didn’t want to be found.

None of us siblings really wanted to sell 16 Campbell when my parents died because we all had the same attachment to the house. But we had either built lives elsewhere and/or didn’t want the expense of restoring the property, which had declined as our parents had aged. Poring over the new photos, I saw the old lady had been completely rejuvenated. Her trim had been stripped to the gleaming grain of the wood. The awkwardly modernish light fixtures installed by my parents had been replaced with period reproductions. The pool area had been gracefully incorporated into the exterior spaces. There was a pergola, looking like an original fixture of the grounds, where once there had been an ancient rose garden. There was a greenhouse and paths along the hill once completely covered with myrtle and brush. A neat white metal fence surrounded the yard, replacing the drunkenly leaning wire fence covered with Lady Banksia roses.

The old girl was looking grand indeed. She sparkled with fresh paint and wallpaper, and her hardwood floors shone. Every room was bright, clean and spacious­. Even the kitchen, cramped and badly designed despite my parents’ best efforts to update it, now looked like an Architectural Digest layout.

16 Campbell was no longer the ramshackle old house where I had grown up, but that didn’t matter. I was glad she had been loved and cared for—as glad as I would be for any human being whose health and youth had been restored. She was the home of my heart, and I will always love her.

She Finds Sea Glass by the Sea Shore


I have always been astonished to find that no matter how obscure a subject, it is covered in agonizing detail somewhere on the internet. People who get interested in something tend to obsessively compile data, and the internet gives us a place to store it where other people can benefit from their obsession.

But I was still surprised to find out that sea glass is a “thing.” Since childhood, I had always regarded sea glass as a delightful side benefit of walking on beaches; suddenly you come across a jewel lying on the sand. I’m not talking about broken beer bottles here, though many have started out this way, but the softly abraded and frosted fragments of well-worn sea glass.

This past winter, El Nino raged up and down the California coast, sending monster waves to dig sand off the beaches, exposing stones, flinging trees and driftwood up onto the beaches, and—exposing tons of sea glass. After a storm, my daughter Kerry went hunting for sea glass, and showed up hours later with an enormous bag of the stuff—white, clear, blue, aqua, brown, amber, and many shades of green. As she began sorting through it, she also began searching the internet for information. It turns out that people have written entire books on the subject, identifying and categorizing different kinds of sea glass by origin, color, composition, original usage, and on and on and on. There’s one man who is an expert in sea glass bottles, and he can tell you where they were made, by whom, and how they were used from pieces of glass.

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

One of the most surprising things we discovered was “UV glass”; glass that contains uranium, resulting in a yellowy-green, light-catching material called “Vaseline glass.” (Not because it was used as containers for Vaseline, but because the glass has a greenish, somewhat oily look.) Under a black light, UV glass glows a brilliant and spooky green. One of the more unusual pieces my daughter found was a glass rod used in making millefiori jewelry that had a star-shaped central core made of UV glass. They stopped using uranium in glass around WWII, presumably because the element was needed for nuclear arms. Everything I’ve read about it indicates that there’s not enough uranium in UV glass to be dangerous, but I don’t think I’ll make any jewelry out of it, just the same.

UV, or "Vaseline" glass with uranium.

UV, or “Vaseline” glass with uranium.

So it turns out that collecting sea glass is a huge thing where I live. The sea glass in-crowd knows the best beaches, the best times of day, the best times of the year, the best weather, the best searching techniques. My daughter encountered another woman just before daylight on the beach, holding a flashlight on a stick to catch the reflection from the glass before the sun came up. Serious sea glassers wear wet suits and use sand crab rakes, normally used to dredge up these little crustaceans for bait, to dig up the glass in the wave zone. This can be a dangerous endeavor on the Northern California coast, which is prone to riptides and sneaker waves. This past winter, a man died at Davenport Beach, his favorite sea glass spot.

Davenport is where the hard-core crowd goes. It’s a public beach, but there is a certain cadre of sea glass seekers that act like it’s Westside Story and they’re the Sharks. I will call them Glassholes. On my first visit, I saw a man digging a large hole on the beach. I wandered over and picked up a quartz pebble he had unearthed—obviously nothing he was interested in.

“I didn’t dig that up for you,” he said. So charming.

“I didn’t imagine that you did,” I said.

“Go find your own hole!”

“It’s a public beach,” I pointed out, whereupon he roared, “Fuck you!” Such a gentleman.

Another lovely Glasshole wrote a manifesto and published it on Facebook instructing amateur “toe-dippers” to stay out of the way of the real people, stay out of the water, and a bunch of other things that I don’t think have been officially sanctioned by the California Coastal Commission.

So why are the Glassholes so hostile and aggressive? Apparently, the tiny town of Davenport (it has like, three streets) was once home to an art glass factory, which threw all  its rejects into the ocean. So it is possible to find stunning pieces of multicolored glass, rare colors and shapes in the Davenport waves. Many of the sea glassers turn these pieces into jewelry, sun-catchers, and other crafty things to sell. Does this excuse  Glassholery? By no means, but I don’t think they care what I think. (By the way, there are also some lovely and generous people who hunt for sea glass as Davenport, and I do not mean to include them in the Glasshole category.) [Post-publication note: Kerry says the glass studio is still there. The glass reached the ocean due to a flood that swept three dumpsters’ worth of art glass rejects into the sea.]

I won’t be returning to Davenport, though it has nothing to do with the Glassholes. In winter, which is the best season to find glass, so much sand has been scoured away from the beach that getting to the water requires descending a 12-foot sandstone cliff. Then, of course, you have to climb up the cliff to get out. I did it, but I’d rather not these days. I am not the agile creature I used to be. (Stop that sniggering, family!)

Sea glass millefiori rod with UV star.

It’s fun finding a special piece like a marble. The reason there are sea glass marbles is not because children play marbles at the beach, it’s because ships used barrels of marbles as ballast, jettisoning the marbles as necessary into the ocean. I have heard of people who have found thousands of them—I have found four.

Sea marble.

Sea marble.

When looking for sea glass, I can walk for miles without noticing that I am exercising. And it’s fun to go through the day’s catch with a black light to see if it will spark that spooky green glow, like the fuel rod in the intro to “The Simpsons.” I love the feeling of triumph when I find a rare color or a particularly well-worn and perfect piece. I used to hunt for shells, but I have actually found more sea glass than whole shells on these shores. Apparently, once a shell is abandoned by its owner, the rocks just beat the shit out of it. Finding an unbroken shell of any species is cause for rejoicing.

This bottle bottom says "FORBID."

This bottle bottom says “FORBID.”

At some point, when I get my jewelry workshop set up again, I will try setting my better pieces. But I will never be the avid collector my daughter has become. Many a weekend, when I am still fast asleep, Kerry is down at the beach, looking for glass. I’d rather have breakfast, so I guess I am not a true fanatic.

Photography by Kerry Keenan Gil

Meow Wolf: It’s Fucking Awesome

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.

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.



Imaginary Friends Versus Imaginary Sparkles


Rainbow of lights

When I was little, I wanted an imaginary friend. I had a Little Golden Book about a lamb who had an imaginary friend, and I thought this would be very handy when I was stuck playing by myself. But try as I might, I never did develop a convincing invisible companion.

My daughter and son both had imaginary friends. Kerry, around the age of three, had a husband named Jonah and 10 kids, most of whom were named Stinky, but one was named Salty. They lived in San Francisco for a while, then they moved to San Jose and Jonah opened a sandwich shop. Jonah suffered an unfortunate death from pneumonia when Kerry developed a crush on a three-year-old named Brian. At the age of two, Sean had Dahlilly. Dahlilly was a very tall angel with orange wings and hair and blue eyes. His favorite food was Chicken McNuggets. Dahlilly eventually turned into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and disappeared soon after, presumably due to personality disorder.

I may not have had an imaginary friend, but I did have imaginary sparkles. Like many kids, I was afraid of the dark, so I kept my door open halfway so that the hall light would dispel the monsters. When the sparkles began I was about six years old. I was lying in bed when I noticed some sort of dust drifting slowly and gently through the half-open bedroom door and spreading throughout my darkened room. In the light from the hallway, they looked like dust motes in a sunbeam. As these motes floated into the darker areas of my room, they looked like infinitesimal points of colored light. Soon, my room was filled with tiny sparkles swimming lazily around my room on unseen currents of air. They were as silent as the stars.

I was alarmed. I had never seen this before, I had never heard anyone talk about anything like this, and I was seriously frightened. I ran downstairs to see my parents, who, predictably, told me I had been having a nightmare.

It was not a nightmare; I had been wide awake. But even at the tender age of six, I intuitively knew that insisting otherwise was a waste of my time. So I trudged back upstairs to my bedroom to face whatever fate awaited me, and was relieved to find that the sparkles had disappeared.

As soon as I went to bed and turned out the light, they drifted in again, tumbling in slow motion and twinkling like incredibly tiny Christmas tree lights—thousands upon thousands of them filling my entire room. That night, I hid my head under the covers, which was my best and only defense against the unknown.

The sparkles came back every night after that. I decided they were benign and friendly things. Maybe it was fairy dust, or the sand that the sandman brought. Or perhaps the sparkles were fairies themselves. I didn’t understand what they were, but I grew to welcome them and looked forward to seeing them every night. The cloud of little lights felt like a magical protection. I never mentioned them to my parents again. I think I casually asked one or two friends if they saw sparkles at night to see if I was the only one. I was the only one.

My parents sent me to boarding school when I was 14. I wondered if the sparkles would follow me to the school. They didn’t. When I came home for Thanksgiving, no sparkles drifted into my room, that night or any other.

I missed them. Perhaps I had outgrown my need for their magical defense. Perhaps it was a function of change in a growing brain. I don’t know.

I suppose the sparkles were a recurring hallucination. Perhaps they were a way to cope with growing up in a difficult family situation. However imaginary they may have been, they were real to me, a mystical defense, a security blanket, a pretty light show that soothed me to sleep.

I still wish the sparkles would come back. They were better than any old imaginary friend.





Releasing Cranberry Sauce into the Wild

This is a picture of cranberries filling a fountain in Vancouver, Canada, BC. No, I haven't the faintest idea.

This is a picture of cranberries filling a fountain in Vancouver, Canada, BC. No, I haven’t the faintest idea.

Well, here it is November again. At exactly midnight on Hallowe’en night, a giant cosmic switch clicks somewhere in the universe, and the retail locations that have been playing “Monster Mash” and “Thriller” immediately begin broadcasting Christmas carols. Down come the bats and cats, and up go the twinkly lights and Santas.

Somehow Thanksgiving, sandwiched between Hallowe’en and Christmas, has become the loser in the cold weather holiday popularity contest. There aren’t a lot of Thanksgiving songs. (I remember “We Gather Together” from long-ago church services, but that’s a hymn, and doesn’t enjoy the bouncy appeal of “Frosty the Snowman,” for example.) We may have our little Thanksgiving traditions (turkey, Aunt Letty’s sweet potato pudding with miniature marshmallows, football), but nothing like the avalanche of rituals, gifts, goodies and decorations that make the Christmas season so stressful—I mean, fun.

But I’m thinking about Thanksgiving now. Back in the day when I was helping my mother prepare Thanksgiving dinner, it was quite an elaborate occasion. My mother got out her white linen tablecloth, spread it over a pad on top of the dining room table, and ironed it in situ. She would ask me to create a centerpiece for the table. We usually had dried gourds and Indian corn squirreled away for this purpose, to which I added colorful fall leaves. (If I could find any by that time. We had a shortage of colorful fall leaves in Southern California.)

Then I set the table with my mother’s best flatware, laying soft, white damask napkins at each place. All the good serving pieces came out, and the carving knife and fork were laid at the head of the table for my father.

I had various duties in the kitchen as well—basting the turkey and so forth. One of my duties (or my sister’s) was to put cranberry sauce in a serving bowl. Cranberry sauce at my house came out of a can. The first time I was assigned this awesome responsibility, I carefully opened the can at both ends and ooshed the red jelly into my mother’s silver serving bowl, where it sat jiggling, perfectly retaining the form of the inside of the can. I popped a spoon in with it and bore it toward the table.

My mother stopped me. “Chop it up a little bit so that it doesn’t look like it just came out of a can,” she said. I dutifully stirred up the jelly until no trace of can could be seen, but I was puzzled. Everyone knew that cranberry sauce came out of a can, so why try to pretend that it didn’t?

I hated that cranberry sauce. I never ate it as a kid. I continued to loathe it as an adult, but I wondered if cranberry sauce made from fresh berries might be better? Many years ago, I heard Susan Stamberg talking on NPR about her mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. It sounded easy, and Ms. Stamberg seemed to like it, so I copied down the recipe and made it for Thanksgiving that year.

“Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce” turned out to be absolutely delicious. I will admit it is a rather alarming shade of Pepto-Bismol pink, but don’t let that put you off. It is sweet—but not too sweet—tart, and refreshing. It’s made with fresh cranberries and is simple to prepare.

The only problem is that my family refuses to eat it. They all think of cranberry sauce as the red jelly stuff that comes out of a can, and are dead-set against anything that calls itself cranberry sauce. I made a batch at Thanksgiving for a few years, but no one but me ever ate any of it and I had to throw the rest out, which seemed wasteful. So I stopped making it.

I have decided to release the recipe back into the wild, in the hopes that someone out there will try it and like it. You can find the recipe online by Googling “Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce,” but here it is:

Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce (thanks to Susan Stamberg)


2 cups fresh cranberries

1 small onion

½ cup sugar

¾ cup sour cream

2 tablespoons horseradish

Grind berries and onion together in the food processor. Add remaining ingredients and blend to a pleasing consistency.

That’s it! Five minutes to the best cranberry sauce you will ever taste. Mrs. Stamberg and I say so. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Losing Esther: An Inadequate Tribute

Esther Marie Isaacson

Esther Marie Isaacson

This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Lompoc, California to attend a memorial service for one of the best women I have ever known, Esther Isaacson.

Esther was the wife of a cattle rancher, Baine Isaacson, and she worked hard all her life. She had a grip like a stevedore from all the physical work she did—forking hay off trucks for cows, digging her garden, putting in fence posts, etc. She and her husband raised three boys on their ranch, called El Chorro, “The Stream.” She had simple tastes. Her clothes were usually blue and white, she wore blue tennies most of the time, and sometimes she sported a little silk scarf at her throat. She didn’t care much about possessions, and for the last 15 years or so of her life, she tried to give them all away. The only things she collected were bells. She had jingle bells, cowbells, reindeer bells, every sort of bells. They hung on the little patio outside the front door and in her tiny breakfast nook, strung on leather straps and woven belts. Getting in and out of the nook always occasioned a good jingle or two.

Esther was my refuge. My first memory of her was when I was six years old, visiting the ranch with my family for the first time. She and Baine radiated kindness, caring and love. She sent me out to play on the ranch with her youngest son, Bob, who was perhaps eight or nine at the time. Bob was as sunny, sweet and kind as his parents. He showed me the boys’ clubhouse—a signal honor—and we caught frogs in the creek, climbed the hills, and chased the cows. One of the best days of my little life.

When I was older and my heart was broken, I came to Esther and she took me in. She never asked questions, just let me stay with her in her ranch house on the hill. I roamed all day on the ranch and in the evening helped her cook. We shopped, sat by the fire, washed dishes, and played cards while I struggled with my aching heart and damaged self-esteem. Her acceptance, quiet presence and love sustained me, and I returned to my life with a renewed sense of strength and self-respect. In truth, I have never been the same since. (My epiphany also had a lot to do with a certain coyote that lived on the ranch, but that is a different story.)

Esther Marie Ibbetson was born in 1912 in Solvang, California. Solvang was founded as a “colony” for Danish ex-patriots, a town where they could speak their own language and teach Danish to their children, eat Danish foods, sing Danish songs, folkdance, and perpetuate their culture. In the earlier days, there were no cars and few roads. Her father was a carpenter, but they lived in a one-room house with a canvas slung down the middle to separate the living quarters from his office. Esther said it was a case of the cobbler’s children—her father was so busy with other people’s houses he had no time to work on his own. However, she noted that houses were often built by the community for newcomers, and the expenses were worked out later.

My mother and Esther traveled a lot together after Baine died. They went to Mexico, Greece, Spain, New Zealand, Guatemala, Fiji, Australia, and many other places, and came home giggling together like schoolgirls. Losing my mother was a great blow to Esther, who often mentioned her with longing for their free-roaming travels.

I won’t say that Esther was amazingly progressive for a woman of her generation, because she was just amazingly progressive, period. She was not religious at all. She loved the land, and practiced her own brand of recycling and conservation long before it became mainstream. She was one of the few girls in her community who went to college, and she married late (for the era) because she didn’t want to stop working. She deplored prejudice, ideology and narrow thinking, and read and thought deeply her entire life.

Esther loved wildflowers—including weeds—and she loved her garden of native plants. She called it her “moon garden,” because it didn’t resemble a typical garden. (A casual visitor might think it was “just” weeds.) She thought planting invasive exotics like English ivy was deplorable when we had so many lovely, drought-resistant plants native to California. Walking on the ranch with her was always a lesson in the local flora and fauna—there was nothing about the land she loved so much that she did not know.

She was 102 years old when she died, and she was more than ready. She lost her husband, her youngest son, two daughters-in-law and many friends before she died herself. She told my sister that “Getting old is so boring!” and my husband (sometime during her 90’s) that “No one should have to live this long.” She didn’t die of any illness. Her heart was fine, and so was her blood pressure and pulse. She just wound down like an old clock and stopped ticking.

So I am not sad for Esther, who was prepared and ready for death. I am sad for myself, because this kind, loving, multifaceted woman is gone from me. The world has lost a treasure, but I know that every human being she touched is the better for that contact. I only hope to carry forward that gift in my own life to give to others.

Goodbye, Esther. I will always love you dearly. Thank you for your kindness and love. Thank you for offering my heart a safe place in this dangerous world.

* * * *

My thanks to the many people who spoke at Esther’s memorial for reminding me of many things I might otherwise have forgotten. Special thanks to Sally Isaacson for putting together and editing Esther’s notes about her childhood and making them available to us.