Mostly Just Gorgeous Photos of Iceland

Today had a lot of highs and lows. Facebook has locked me out of my account because I was hacked, so nobody is reading these blogs. Well, hardly anybody. And there is no way to contact Facebook unless you are actually logged into Facebook, which I can’t do. This is so frustrating it makes me want to eat my head, but you definitely don’t want to hear about it–all two of you who are aware these posts are being published, at any rate. My apologies to Goodreads readers. The photos don’t seem to be uploading to Goodreads. I am trying to run my social media from an iPad and it’s just not the same.

We departed Reykjavík today, heading north. Really, I should just post the photos, because Iceland can speak for herself.

This gorgeous little waterfall was right next the Ring Road that goes around the island. It was situated near the ruins of a Norse homestead.

What looks like low rock walls are part of the remains of the Norse homestead.

Just beauty.

We visited the Thingvellir, a national park located at the site of the world’s oldest continuously-operating parliament, the Althingi. It is situated at a site where two tectonic plates meet. The people at the top of that cliff are standing at the edge of one plate, and I am taking a picture standing on the other.

Another shot at the Thingvellir.

The view from Saudafell Guesthouse, where we are staying in a 100+year-old farmhouse. Everything you see here belongs to our hosts. They raise sheep and grow hay for the sheep, and they have a few horses. The sheep, in the traditional manner, have been sent to the mountains to graze for the summer. In the old days, the dairymaid or some other woman of the household went with them to watch them, and thereby hangs many a tale. However, our hostess is still at home and the sheep are on their own in the mountains until the fall.

Why the Hell Did I Go To Iceland?

This has little to with my topic, but it is a great fantasy component—a throne of ice.

It has just occurred to me that I haven’t told you why we are here. I’m researching my fourth fantasy novel. I have finished my third, rounding out my “Gods of the New World” trilogy, and I think it is the best one yet. Sadly, Diversion Books has decided to focus on non-fiction, which means I’ll need to find a new publisher. Diversion is kindly continuing to sell my books until I do. But what does a writer do when they finish a novel? Start a new one.

Because the trilogy (“The Obsidian Mirror,” “Fire in the Ocean,” and soon (I hope) “Lords of the Night”) was based on New World mythologies, legends and folk tales, I thought I’d turn to the Old World for inspiration. But I didn’t want to recap the European fairy stories and evil creatures like vampires. I have long been intrigued with Iceland. Here’s why:

  • Iceland was very isolated from its original settlement around 850 C.E. until WWII. I don’t mean it was cut off from the rest of the world–the Icelandic Vikings were highly skilled seafarers, and Iceland was always in distant touch with the rest of the world. But it was difficult and dangerous to get to Iceland, and difficult and dangerous to go elsewhere. The language hasn’t changed since Medieval times, except for the addition of modern words like computer.
  • Around 25% of the population believes in or gives some credence to the existence of the huldefolk, the hidden people. English translates this into elves or fairies, but don’t imagine little fluffy things with butterfly wings. The huldefolk were the same size as people and earned their living doing similar things–farming and fishing. But they had powerful magic, their own religion, and lived inside the stones in magnificent palaces, wearing fine clothes and jewels–unlike the average Icelander, who lived in a single room with everyone else in the family and their children, slaves and servants, and probably a few dogs and cats and possibly a sheep or two. After the Christianization of Iceland in 1000 C.E., when it became the sanctioned religion, pagan worship became illegal. I find it hard to believe that paganism just died right then and there, however. The huldefolk lent some creativity and glamor to lives that were hard, filled with labor from dawn to dusk, and dangerous.
  • I read many of the sagas (I read them in translation. I am so glad I didn’t torture myself by trying to learn Icelandic.), and several volumes of fairy tales and related topics, I decided that the fairy tales were highly reminiscent of stories from continental Europe. But the Icelandic tradition of magicians has an entirely different flavor. They once believed there was a Black School for magicians, located “somewhere far away” and underground. There was no light, so the students studied by the fiery letters of their books. The Black School graduated its students in groups of seven, and the last student to leave the school would be claimed by the devil. Nonetheless, Iceland had several revered bishops and priests who were also magicians. And there were a number of Icelandic grimoires, books of incantations, now lost. Of course.
  • Iceland is a very different place, physically. It is full of active volcanoes, mud pots, hot pools, lava flows, and everything that goes with that. They have two kinds of volcanoes, which is unusual–cone and shield. Being so far north (nearly within the Arctic Circle), the plants and animals are quite different as well. Until the Vikings arrived, the only land mammal that made Iceland a permanent home was the Arctic fox. Polar bears still occasionally visit, but they don’t live here. Despite the dearth of any other dangerous land animals, the Icelanders filled their landscape with huldefolk, trolls, and assorted monsters. We haven’t left Reykjavík yet, but it appears a rather austere land, beautiful, awe-inspiring, but stark.

What more could a fantasy author ask for? All I need now is a story.

A red rose is frozen inside the central top finial of the icy throne.

Chasing Bookstores and Eating Great Food. That was About It.

After wrapping up my blog post at around 1:30 am last night, I listened to an audiobook for a while. It was darker than it had been at 11:30, when it was almost full daylight. By 2 am or so, it was twilight–dim, but still plenty light enough to walk around outside, if that’s what you wanted to do. I did not, and went back to bed, where I slept like the dead until 9:00 am. I probably would have slept longer, but Tom awoke me–breakfast was waiting.

Edda had really gone all out on breakfast. She had boiled eggs, skyr (Iceland’s lumpy yogurt), blueberry scones, smoked salmon, rye bread, assorted meats and cheeses, tea, coffee, orange juice, cherry tomatoes, and fruit. It was clear she was not going to permit us to depart hungry. Edda sat on the couch while we ate, occasionally chiming in on the conversation.

Edda is not the first B&B hostess that I personally think might have been better suited to another line of work. She is very uncomfortable with anything that violates her expectations. Example: I left my suitcase next to the dining area before I twigged to the fact that this was intended to be a shared space with other guests (there are none). I went back to move it after I realized–and there was Edda, glaring at my suitcase. I apologized and moved back into “our” room. She did not like it when I used a mug from the kitchen instead of the one in our room. And when I carefully washed the mug, teabag holder, and spoon I had used in making tea, laying them on a clean towel to dry, I found them in the sink when we returned. She clearly doesn’t want us in her side yard, where we went a couple of times to ask her something. She wants to be communicated with through a door in our area that is locked on her side. She walks into our area without knocking, however, at any time. It’s not that I dislike her, but she is so clearly uncomfortable with the presence of strangers in her house.

We had no fixed plans for the day, just a list of things we thought we’d like to get to. First stop was Perlan, a round, glass-domed building that houses a number of exhibits about Iceland’s natural environment. This includes an artificial ice tunnel made to look like a glacial ice tunnel. It may be manmade, but the ice was real, and it was very cold in there. kind of a cool experience, if you will excuse the pun. I have no intention whatsoever of experiencing the real thing–that’s not why I’m here.

There was a planetarium-style show of the northern lights, which gave me some good ideas, actually. And they have a 360-degree revolving restaurant on top that is not revolving at present because they are waiting for parts. The views from the restaurant over the city of Rekjavik and the ocean are spectacular. I didn’t take pictures because it is a very gray day, and I didn’t think photos would convey the experience at all.

The gift shop in the museum had some really unique things. Which included taxidermied puffins, making my skin crawl. Puffins, whales, and Greenland sharks are all endangered, and tourists eat most of them, not Icelanders. The Greenland shark is more than worth a mention here.

We visited the Reykjavík Cathedral, which is a Church of Iceland (Lutheran) edifice. It’s quite unique, but I have mixed feelings about it. It is a towering icon, dwarfing other buildings in a city that has very few tall buildings, and no skyscrapers. Its architecture combines the Gothic with… I dunno. The interior is the most austere and severe I have ever see.

The Iceland National Cathedral. The gentleman sculptured in front is Leif Erickson, natch.

Interior of the cathedral.. Gothic, but no stained glass or furbelows of any description.

Then it was another lunch at Snaps, every bit as wonderful as the previous day. I had moules frites and Tom had duck confit, both as good as I have ever had in my life. Then we set out in search of a book store.

Icelanders prize books. They have a Christmas tradition of giving books and spending Christmas in reading and eating chocolate, which is pretty much my idea of heaven. I wanted to find a bookstore owned by the Icelandic publisher Ferlagid. I bought several books from them previously, and was hopeful they might have a larger selection of the topics I am researching.

It turns out there are several Ferlagid stores in Reykjavik, and we went to the wrong one. The woman in the shop gave us the address for the main store, which turned out to be located in a strange industrial section of town that seems to be in the process of gentrification. I found a few books, but not quite what I was looking for. The nice ladies there sent me to another bookstore located right downtown, so we went there. This one, Eymunsson, had four stories of books and a cafe. I found another book or two there, and regretfully turned down a book about the role of Icelandic dwarves in mythology. You have to draw the line somewhere when you know you have to haul it all home is your suitcase.

The counter at the main Forlagid store is held up by books.

Then on to check out the geothermal beach. I had heard that the beach had warm water, even in winter. I was tempted to go, but wanted to check it out first. Reykjavik is under a huge amount of construction that makes it difficult to get around, but we found it. Nauthólsvík is an artificially-created beach of golden sand with hot pools. People were out in the water of the harbor, too, so it must also be warm, if not hot. There are changing rooms, but I needed to know if you had to bring your own towels. Every place is different, and I didn’t want to emerge from a warm pool into 60 degree weather with no towel. Three teenaged boys were drinking beer on the steps and watching girls, so I asked them about towels. They said best to bring your own, and helpfully directed me to a place I could buy towels and maybe a bikini. I told them my bikini days were long past.

Wild lupine near the geothermal beach. Masses of these can be seen on the way from the airport.

Off to the mall next to pick up some wine. They had California wines at astronomical prices. We bought Spanish and Argentinian. I noticed that their liquor section was tiny. The majority of tipples on offer were gin. And they were all in plastic bottles (not the wine, just the booze).

Then we headed back to the sleepy town of Harfnarfjordur where our guesthouse is. We were heading back at rush hour. There were a few cars on the road, but not many. It was almost eerie to be on a sleek freeway, in a capitol city, at rush hour, with what we would call no traffic.

We ate dinner at a restaurant in Harfnafjordur, not wanting to drive back to Reykjavík. (Not that it’s very far.) We found a restaurant on the harbor in a kind of odd little collection of businesses. I ordered Arctic char, and Tom had mussels and also lamb’s neck–not a dish we had ever seen before. Everything was wonderful. I really was not prepared for the level of excellence we have encountered with the food here. And the portions are reasonable–I hate it when I have to decline a doggy bag because I have no place to reheat or prepare the food I have not been able to eat. The prices are about what you would find in any city, although many other prices are much higher, like fuel. And, to be frank, books.

During the day, I came up with a lot of interesting stuff to tell you all. But I’m afraid jet lag is still affecting my ability to do more than attempt to appear normal–although I’ve had worse. Still, time to sign off and go to bed. It’s 11:50 pm, overcast, so not so bright as yesterday–but still light. Maybe I’ll remember those fascinating details in the morning!

The House-Munching Lava Boulder, & Miscellaneous Musings of the Tired Traveler

Beware the house-munching boulder!

We’re in Hafnarfjordur, south of the “big” city of Reykjavík. It’s a little harbor town, and our guesthouse is just a few blocks from the water.

As soon as we left the airport, it was clear we were in a very different place. The highway from the airport to Rekjavik drives straight across a vast, flat, ancient lava flow. The black volcanic rock pokes through everywhere. I didn’t get a photo, but there were masses of purple lupine, yellow daisy-like things, some sort of low, creeping plant with bright purple flowers, orangey-red flowers I didn’t recognize–all growing on ground disturbed by construction or roadwork. The lava itself was largely covered by low grasses and gray-green arctic moss. We drove past one mighty mountain in the distance spewing enormous clouds of steam into the cool air–from its base, not its summit. I don’t know what the explanation is.

The architecture here is quite different from the US. Lots of concrete and glass, and in common with New Zealand, many of the buildings and houses are covered in corrugated steel. Roofs are often steel as well. Our guesthouse, pictured below, is one such steel-clad building.

Edda’s Guest House

Edda’s side yard. Bunnies are in bed, I guess.

Edda’s Guesthouse is our temporary residence. When we arrived, we just walked right into the living quarters because the doors are never locked. We were given a skeleton key for our bedroom that wouldn’t foil a child. (I gather this is not a high-crime neighborhood.) We share the quarters with others, as yet unknown, which includes a kitchen we aren’t allowed to cook in, a bathroom, and a dining-living room area, all of which sounds much grander than it is. The side yard boasts five bunnies, one chicken, and some dogs and cats. The entire package, including Edda, is a somewhat ramshackle affair, but I am NOT complaining. I am enjoying. Different from the usual is a good thing, and refreshes the soul.

The lava is everywhere, sometimes in enormous boulders, like the one apparently threatening the house above. The Icelanders just build around it or use it in the building. I saw some really creative decorative bricks made with lava embedded in them, and you see all kinds of constructs, walls, fences, etc., utilizing this ubiquitous material.

After getting organized, we drove into Reykjavík in search of lunch. There was barely any traffic, by our standards. And there weren’t a lot of people on the streets, which seemed odd for a city. Some of the buildings are painted with fanciful designs, including one store that was completed covered in painted tropical foliage. It must look strange when it snows.

It turns out Iceland isn’t all that cold–not as I’d imagined. Iceland is warmer than New York in the winter due to the Gulf Stream. (I imagine they are talking about upstate NY, though!) it’s been in the sixties today, which is the same as at home on the California Central Coast.

We ate at a restaurant called Snaps!, and I rate our first meal here an A+. Everything was wonderful. I started getting incredibly tired during the meal, having been awake for nearly 24 hours. I had a cup of coffee–and that is why I am blogging right now. I think Tom went to sleep, despite our talking about staying awake to get acclimated. I’d like to make it to at least five o’ clock, local time.

Tomorrow, more Rekjavik. I may look for sea glass, and we want to go to the National Museum and Culture House. I think we’re going to skip the Phallological Museum, though. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

The Tale of How a Little Book for Kids Grew Up and Became a Little Book for Kids


Once upon a time, many years ago (many, MANY years ago), I was a college student at Beloit College (it’s in Wisconsin and that’s all you need to know about it). I was earning a Master’s Degree in Teaching, and one of the courses I took was Children’s Literature. Much of our grade was based on two essays the professor had assigned. Two essays that I am sure the professor had selected carefully for their learning potential, but which I thought were incredibly boring.

So without any notion of what I was really doing, I asked my prof if instead of writing two essays, I could write two children’s books instead. He agreed.

I spent the better part of the next several weeks holed up in the house trailer where my husband and I lived at the time, writing a little book called “I Am Not a Bear,” and illustrating it in pen and ink and watercolor. I painted the scenes and then pasted the typewritten text onto the watercolor paper. Lacking any sort of binding option, I punched the pages with three holes and fastened them with binder rings. It was a crude production, but the best I had to hand.

The original illustration of Paul picking up his room.


The new illustration of Paul picking up his room.

The story is about Paul, a little boy who wants to live with the bears because bears don’t have to do math, pick up their rooms, or eat oatmeal. He winds up trading places with a bear cub, Growf, who wants to live with people. Both discover there really is no place like home, but they do meet each other in the end and have a good laugh about it. It’s a simple story with a sweet message about family and home—and whether or not the grass is really greener elsewhere.

My prof liked the book and read it to his kids, who also liked it. I got an A+ in the class. End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end. I kept this opus in a file drawer for many years. When my kids hit the right age (around four years old), I pulled out my “book” and read it to them. They seemed to enjoy it, even if it didn’t become a favorite like “The Cat in the Hat.” But then, my book didn’t rhyme.

The decades passed. The grandchildren came along. I read “I Am Not a Bear” to them, too. But as I was reading it, I noticed a few things with embarrassment. It was too long and wordy for the target age. The illustrations were crude, and I had learned how to paint in oils by this time and had paintings hanging in galleries. Even more important, print-on-demand had been invented, so I could create a genuine book for my grandchildren—something they could keep if they wanted.

I rewrote the book, trying to cut verbiage and page count. Then I re-illustrated it in pastels. I wanted a soft, fuzzy look, and pastels seemed ideal. I had never used pastels before, but I didn’t let that stop me. It turned out pastels weren’t that much different from painting in oils, just…drier. Then I formatted it for lulu.com and printed a few copies for the grandchildren and sundry other kids belonging to friends and family.

I thought that was the end of this little story. But no.

I became distraught over the separation of families at the border and the imprisonment of immigrant children. I lay awake at night, agonizing over those poor kids and their families, frustrated because there was nothing I could do to help.

Then it occurred to me I could help. If I could find an appropriate organization aimed at helping immigrant families at the border, I could self-publish “I Am Not a Bear” as a bilingual English-Spanish book and donate all the proceeds to that organization to help them be more effective.

I approached only two refugee assistance organizations. The first one never replied to me. The second, the National Network for Refugee & Immigrant Rights (NNIR), responded immediately and enthusiastically that they would love to work with me on this. They have been an appreciative partner.

Just one problem. I don’t speak or write Spanish. I can find my way around a Spanish-speaking country by dint of speaking only in the present tense and waving my hands around a lot, but I didn’t even know the Spanish word for “bear cub.” (It turns out a lot of people who speak Spanish don’t know that either, which made me feel better.)

Fortunately, I have a Spanish-speaking friend who grew up in Mexico, Clod Barrera. I asked Clod if he would translate my book, for the magnificent compensation of nothing but my eternal gratitude. Clod, being a wonderful person, did so. And then I passed the translation around to a few other people to make sure all was copacetic—because I sure wouldn’t have known if there were a problem!

Finally, everything was ready to go. Except for formatting the new version of the book on lulu.com. For some reason, this took forever, and I have no intention of boring you with why, but it is finally ready to sell.

I don’t usually ask people straight out to buy my books, but I’m making an exception. If you care about the plight of children and families at the border—and know a child (around four to seven years of age) who would enjoy the book, or know of a school that could use bilingual books for young children—I’m asking you to buy “I Am Not a Bear/Yo no soy oso.” One hundred percent of the profits will be donated to the NNIR for at least two years. Here’s where to get it: http://www.lulu.com/shop/kd-keenan/i-am-not-a-bearyo-no-soy-oso/paperback/product-23979188.html

I thank you in advance. Every book that sells sends more money to help immigrants and their families.

This illustration didn’t make it into the book for purely technical reasons. but I kind of like it anyway.

Raising Tad

First:
I love animals. I have always had pets, and never believed what I heard from others about how they don’t have the same emotions, or even the same ability to feel pain. Nonsense. Animals are more like us than not, but we have spent millennia trying to prove that we are better, finer, and superior. We have behaved accordingly, acting as though animals could not feel, or suffer. As if they didn’t matter.

So don’t read this piece if you are one of those individuals. You won’t like it.
* * * *

A few weeks ago, my daughter Kerry came home from her teaching job with a jar of water containing two tiny black commas of life: tadpoles. One of her middle-school students had given them to her so that Kerry’s two little girls could observe the miraculous transformation from tadpole to frog. The tadpoles were no bigger than my little fingernail.

Sadly, one of them did not survive. It was a rough journey from his home pond to middle school to our house. But one tiny scrap of life lived. We never named it, nor do we know its gender, but let’s call him Tad for convenience.

Tad took up residence in a plastic food container with purified water and two baby spinach leaves to eat. He swam around energetically enough for a few weeks, gorging on spinach. I marveled at him. He was so tiny that he couldn’t consume even one leaf before it started to go bad. I regularly changed his water and his spinach leaves as he worked on growing out his hind legs.

He became a bit sluggish and one morning, Kerry found him floating on his back on top of the water, apparently dead. But when she picked up the container, he flicked away, very much alive. Kerry consulted the oracle (the Internet) and found that once tadpoles get their hind legs, they also begin developing lungs, so he needed an easier way to breathe at the surface. I selected a rock for his container, one with gently sloping sides so he could almost swim right out of the water onto the top of the rock, which I left rising just a bit above the waterline. I added some sticks for good measure and topped it off with a couple of baby spinach leaves.

I swear he was way happier with the additions. (Go ahead and laugh. I don’t care.) Lethargy forgotten, he careened around his enclosure, now with far less water, dodging between twigs and hiding by the rock’s sloping sides. He did swim right up to the rock to rest in the water while he breathed. I was delighted, and I think that’s when I lost a little piece of my heart to him.

Tad’s forelegs seemed to pop out overnight, each the circumference of a thread. And one day, he climbed right out of the water and sat on top of the rock like a grown-up frog. The picture above is of this event. Terrible photo, but remember, he was teensy, and I was shooting through the plastic walls of a food container.

Tad sat on his rock the entire day without moving. My hypothesis is that he was allowing his lungs to practice breathing, and perhaps this was an energy-intensive exercise. I was smitten. He was just SO cute sitting there like a real frog, and yet—still the size of my little fingernail.

It was time to let Tad return to nature. His tail was nothing but a nubbin and his legs were fully developed. He would need to eat tiny insects now, as spinach would no longer appeal to him.

We live near a large tract of wild woodland. I thought I would let him go in the stream that winds through the woods. Lower downstream where it meanders into the ocean, there is always a crowd of ducks and seagulls, it’s polluted, and the water is brackish.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the forest stream. Although there are places where you can reach the stream easily, they are not near the park road. My husband and I had taken our youngest granddaughter to witness the release and we were also carrying Tad’s container. Jessamyn, age four, is definitely not Nature Girl and objects to long and difficult walks. I had safety-proofed Tad’s container as best I could by removing the sticks, emptying most of the water and replacing the rock with a mound of sodden paper towels so he would have a safe place to sit out of the water if he needed it. But I could tell the movement and jouncing were frightening to him.

So we drove closer to where the creek empties into the ocean. The banks became much less precipitous. I found a spot upstream from where the ducks and seabirds hang out, far enough from the sea that the water wouldn’t be brackish. It was a shallow stretch of streambed with a golden, sandy bottom. I clambered as far down the bank as I could and let Tad out of his container.

With a burst of speed that surprised us, Tad leaped downhill toward the water and disappeared into the weeds matting the stream bank. We lost sight of him within a second. He was such an infinitesimal scrap of a creature that any shadow, any shelter disguised him entirely. It made me wonder how many little animals I have unwittingly walked upon without ever knowing it.

I absolutely would be lying if I told you that were the end of it. No, I worried. Did he make it to the water? Did he live through his first day as a free frog? Did he become a light snack for a garter snake or a sparrow?

Was this silly of me? Yes. Tadpoles are spawned in the hundreds of thousands, and they are ready food for many animals. Frogs, too, are the prey of birds, toads, foxes, raccoons, fish…and so on. Hakuna matata, the great circle of life and all that.

But I still think a lot about that minute froglet, sitting so quietly and proudly on top of his rock. Although Tad’s chances of survival were slim, at least I gave him a safe and predator-free tadpolehood. That is probably the best we can do for our own children before we release them into the wild.

The Price of Freedom Isn’t Free

“The price of freedom isn’t free.” That’s a saying that ex-service people are fond of using, especially when they are in a more-righteous-than-thou mood. I’m grateful to those who have served, but more than a little put off by this, as in the former client who had an American flag the size of a tennis court in his office. I remarked on it, and he snapped at

 

me, “The price of freedom isn’t free, y’know!” As if I had claimed the opposite for some reason.

As it happens, he was right, but for reasons other than his pride in military service. Yes, the military does the government’s bidding here and abroad, but it isn’t the military that defends the rights and freedoms of American citizens.

It’s American citizens.

And we haven’t been doing a very good job of it over the past four decades. When the Reagan Administration struck down the FCC Fairness Doctrine, there wasn’t a great deal of pushback. The Fairness Doctrine required that if, for example, a broadcaster aired 15 minutes of liberal information or editorial content, they must balance it with 15 minutes of conservative content on the same subject.

Prior to the elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, we didn’t have Fox News. Or ClearChannel. Or Breitbart. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Alex Jones. Sure, those folks were out there, but they didn’t have a 24/7, 52-week media platform from which to propagate lies and disinformation. As a result, the country has become increasingly polarized as about one-third of the population has willingly walled themselves off from reality to marinate in the “information” they want to hear, as opposed to the truth.

The citizens should have taken to the streets when Citizens United was passed into law. But we didn’t. Citizens United, in brief, changed the status of corporations to people, allowing them to donate money to political campaigns and deeply influence the politics of the country.

The problem is, corporations aren’t people. They don’t act in the interests of the people, they act in the interests of corporations. So if our current laws and policies reflect little to negative concern for the wellbeing of actual human beings, that’s why. The laws weren’t passed for our benefit.

Voter suppression has always been a problem in this country, as certain groups strive to maintain power by excluding others from the political table. However, there are individuals and organizations that are deeply committed to preventing people of color, poor people, and liberals from voting. Here are just a few of the techniques deployed during the 2016 election:

  • Using a voting software program called CrossCheck, allegedly to prevent voter fraud, but in reality designed to throw qualified voters off the rolls when said voters tend to be in the undesired categories. Twenty-eight states used CrossCheck in 2016, throwing literally hundreds of thousands of registered voters off the rolls. Most of these voters were people of color, poor, young (likely to be liberal), or liberal.
  • Voter caging—requiring voters to verify their mailing addresses by sending them small postcards covered with tiny type that often are overlooked as junk mail. Failure to respond resulted in being eliminated from the rolls. These postcards, need I say, were mailed to communities whose residents are poor and/or minority.
  • Voter ID laws—requiring a state-issued ID to vote, which disadvantages poor people in particular as it requires them to travel to the DMV and pay for the ID.
  • Gerrymandering—this is an old (the term was first used in 1812) but successful technique that involves drawing up voting districts that concentrate conservative voters across as many districts as possible to create a conservative majority. (It could work both ways, but it’s mostly Republicans who do this.)
  • Mailing false voting information. Postcards with incorrect information on when and where to vote are mailed into districts with minority populations.
  • Poll closures. Polling places are strategically shut down or closed early in —you guessed it­—poor and minority neighborhoods.

As the Tea Party diligently worked to put whackadoodle candidates in positions of power all across the country, we liberals patiently waited for the checks and balances we’ve been told about to kick in.

Well, guess what? They didn’t.

Turns out you actually have to DO something for the checks and balances to work. As in protest, resist, rock the boat, take to the streets, speak out. As a result, the United States is no longer a beacon of freedom to the world. We are a third-rate developed country. We used to be number one in infant mortality survival, health care, human rights, education, income per capita, equitable distribution of wealth, etc., etc. None of that is true anymore. We’re just another corporate-owned, corrupt, greedy banana republic with an insane tinpot dictator at the helm, masses of increasingly poor citizens, viciously oppressed minorities, and an educational system that turns out ignorant, entitled mistakes like Donald J. Trump and company.

On the other hand, the United States has achieved primacy in many key areas. We are number one in percentage of our population in jail. We are also number one in how quickly we force new parents to return to work. The U.S. spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country (might have something to do with our abysmal healthcare statistics), despite the fact we get less than anybody else for the money. We also have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and—surprise!—one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world.

Friends, we did not get here due to the enmity of foreign powers. No one attacked us to shove us down the scale of decency and freedom to occupy a position just under Slovakia. We did it to ourselves through irresponsible legislation, punitive laws, favoring corporate rights over human rights, pandering to religious interests (read Christian here), and failing to create an environment where education—the real kind, where you learn how to think—can flourish. And most of it came about because corrupt and greedy people want more money, and they’re not at all reluctant to take it out of your wallet.

The price of freedom isn’t free. We have to work constantly to deserve that freedom. When we see something like the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, or the passage of an insanely wrong law, we have to step up and work to overcome. I used to think that eternal vigilance was just a fancy patriotic way of describing our military. No, eternal vigilance is what we owe ourselves, our families, our communities and our country to prevent the enemies of freedom from invading the halls of power from within.

Let this be the last gasp of oligarchical power, corruption, and bigotry in this country. Let it be the last spasm of hatred for the poor, disadvantaged, minorities and women. Let it be the last of untrammeled corporate greed in this country. Stay awake, be vigilant, question everything. And let freedom ring again.

A Blog Post That Is Not about Politics

This is my favorite illustration so far. Paul, the little boy wearing bear pyjamas, has run away to the woods at night. Suddenly, he realizes…that he is in the woods. At night.

I know that as a writer, I’m supposed to be producing blog posts every few days about compelling topics such as … I don’t know. Compelling topics, anyway.

My problem is that the political turmoil gripping this country is so frightening, so horrific, that I can barely think about anything else. But I’m sure most of you would welcome reading something that has nothing to do with politics. I know I would, but I’m having difficulty tearing myself away. Long story short, I have fallen woefully short on blog post production, sparing you my agonized ruminations on The State of the Nation.

So I’m going to tell you what I’m working on now, in case anyone wants to know. I finished the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror” last fall. It’s called “Fire in the Ocean,” and it is set primarily on the Hawai‘ian island of Moloka‘i. Long-term followers may remember that I blogged my research trip there in the winter of 2016—and what a trip it was!

The blurb: What would you do if you found yourself marooned on a tropical island with a shape-shifting demi-god who has lost his powers—and another shape-shifting demi-god who has not?

Naturally, you make friends with the local monster and get the heck out. Sierra Carter, newbie magic worker, does just this but finds herself caught up in a web of greed, deception, good intentions and the deep magic of ancient Moloka‘i, the isle of sorcerers. A few meddlesome gods and goddesses complicate the situation even when they’re trying to help.

“Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” continues the tale of Sierra and her friends (including a mannegishi and a part-time coyote) as they battle with an energy developer to protect the precious natural environment of Hawai‘i.

Diversion Books has given “Fire in the Ocean” a February 2018 launch slot, so you’ll be hearing more from me about this book in the future.

I am also re-writing and re-illustrating a children’s book. When I was in my Master’s program at college, I took a course in children’s literature (I was getting a degree in teaching). I asked my professor if, instead of writing a mid-term and final essay talking about some aspect of children’s lit, I could just write a couple of children’s books. He was delighted with this idea, and I produced “I Am Not a Bear” for four- to six-year-old children. (I also wrote a novel for older children that I will not be revisiting.)

Growf, the little bear, sleeps in Paul’s bed.

The story is a simple one about a boy who wants to be a bear and a little bear who wants to be a human. They try trading places only to discover that they were happier in their own homes.

At the time I wrote the book, I was living in a house trailer on a farm that trained sulky racers—thoroughbred horses that race with a lightweight cart and driver behind them. I have a vivid memory of being curled up on the couch, painting the illustrations for the book and listening to the horses clopping by outside. I got an A in the course, by the way.

I read “I Am Not a Bear” to my children when they were little, and thought about redoing the book. By then, having grown as a writer and as an artist, I thought I could improve on them quite a bit. But I was raising kids and running a business, and time was what I didn’t have.

Now that I have grandchildren and time, I am actually doing it. I have no plans to try to get it published—publishers normally want to pick the illustrators for stories, and I’m sure they are usually right, but this is my story, and I want to do it my way. I intend to have it printed on demand, a couple of books for the grandkids, one for a new great-niece, and a few extra in case more come along.

Of course, Paul wouldn’t leave home without his teddy.

I am also helping a friend write his autobiography. It’s a rags-to-riches story, quite literally. We have worked on it for the better part of two years, trying to accommodate his busy schedule as a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Research and my fiction writing and travels. I think his story is fascinating, but it is a challenge to translate someone’s life experiences into coherent and gripping prose. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but I’m enjoying it.

I started a writer’s critique circle recently. I joined one that someone else started and enjoyed it enormously, but then she moved out of the area. I tried to revive the one she began without much success, but the new group is fully booked, and I hope it will be as useful and enjoyable as the one my friend started. All writers need editors and readers, and a critique circle can be incredibly helpful. I’m calling it Writers Square, partly because everyone calls these things circles, and partly because one of my favorite mystery series has a writers’ critique club called Writers Square. (I have always been a sucker for bad humor. Good humor, too.)

So that’s my blog for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from politics. I know I did.

Farewell to the Isle of Women

The Caribbean shore of Isla Mujeres, with embellishment.

 

This morning, I was determined to do some beachcombing. Everyone says there is sea glass here. But first we had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where the staff now knows us and the food is good. They have a small army of cats in the restaurant, black and white, orange tabby, and cream. They aren’t feral, exactly, but they aren’t pets. I suspect they are there not to cage crumbs from the tourists, but to keep the rodent and cucaracha populations under control.

Then we took No. 8., our putt-putt cart, over to the north shore. It is rocky all along the Caribbean side. There are no beaches and the currents are too strong for swimming. The waves are small, just a constant slap-slap-slap against the rough rocks.

Sadly, what we mostly found was plastic garbage. We did find some sea glass, but nothing that a sea glass enthusiast would get excited about. Mostly of the broken beer bottle variety but there were a few nice pieces. And we found a sad, dead cow fish. But mostly plastic garbage, which you see everywhere on this island. Every day, I saw people finish food and just walk away, leaving their refuse on the street.

The bridge to Mia Reef

 

 

After that, we went to Mia Reef, which is a resort built, natch, on top of a reef. As a consequence, the reef is now dead. It is reached by a narrow wooden bridge across a beautiful turquoise inlet. For a fee, non-residents can get all the food and drink they want (including alcohol), and hang out on the beach or at the pool. There is still reef, accessible from the beach, and the water is quite shallow all the way out to it. We didn’t snorkel because it was windy, but one man who was snorkeling said there was a lot to see. We swam in the aqua water and lazed on a swinging mattress under a palapa, looking out on the Caribbean. Mia Reef would be an ideal place to take kids because the water is crystalline, shallow and calm. Once older kids are used to the water, the reef would be an excellent introduction to snorkeling. The resort is elegant and clean, there’s a kids’ club, and the staff is attentive even to day trippers such as ourselves. The food was acceptable, the drinks not overly alcoholic, if you know what I mean.

We walked out on a long pier. There were two people snorkeling, and they said they saw a lot of fish. I decided not to try because of the wind and because we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour the next day, but I later regretted my decision to give it a pass.

As the following day was our next-to-last day on the island, we checked the flight times and discovered that we weren’t going to make our flight if we stayed on the island for the last day we were booked. We would have to go back to the Marriott Courtyard at the airport, which meant we had to check out the afternoon prior to our flight instead of staying on Isla. This was the same day we had scheduled the snorkeling tour, which bothered me because once you’re on one of these tours, you don’t just decide it’s gone on too long; you’re there for the duration. We had to turn in No. 8 by 4 pm and make sure we caught the ferry to the mainland in time. So I cancelled the trip again.

* * * *

We’d already seen most of the things there are to see on this small island. There were only two things left, so we decided to do them.

Green sea turtle at the Tortugranja

We started at Garrifon Reef Park to do some snorkeling. It was more expensive than Mia Reef, but it is a kind of family playground with zip lines over the water, snorkeling, kayaking, a shallow, wandering pool with waterfalls and grottoes, beaches, restaurants and bars. Food, drinks and all activities were included in the price of admission.

Tom and I went snorkeling, but it was a disappointment to me. They make you wear a life jacket, which annoys me because it makes it hard to swim. The reef is dead, but they won’t let you snorkel over it anyway. We saw some fish and I saw a stingray. Tom saw a very large fish that he thought at first was a barracuda, but it was too chunky for that. He’d recognize a shark, so we never figured it out. My snorkel mask, which is one of the new kind that have a non-fogging bubble and built-in snorkel, was apparently too large, and I had to snorkel with my mouth hanging open to prevent water from entering. There was a line of people waiting at the steps to get into the water, and none of them would budge to let us out. A kindly man eventually took my equipment to allow me to climb out, which was nice of him.

We had the cafeteria food they were serving for lunch, accompanied by a non-stop stream of pretty-much-non-alcoholic margueritas that we didn’t ask for, which was fine. Sort of like lime slurpees, but better. Again, this would be a terrific place to bring kids. I’m just spoiled because I have snorkeled in places like Hawaii and Tahiti, where the reefs are alive and the ocean life abundant. I think I’m done trying to snorkel in the Caribbean. I’ve snorkeled in Antigua (actually OK at the time; early 70s), Jamaica and now Isla Mujeres, and most of the reefs I’ve seen are dead.

This was our last night on the island, so we made reservations for the fancy restaurant at Villa Rolandi. I had a filet mignon with bearnaise sauce that was as tender as chicken (I mean well-prepared chicken) and flavor to die for. It’s a great place, but at $400US a night it’s pretty pricey, even if all meals and drinks and activities are inclusive.

The following day we had breakfast at Mango Cafe–poblano pepper stuffed with bacon, eggs, onions and cheese, breaded and deep-fried. OK not healthy, but I’m on vacation dammit. We’ve pretty much done everything there is to do here, so we visited the Tortugranja, a rescue and breeding facility for sea turtles. They provide a safe place to lay and hatch the eggs, then release the babies. They have tanks with some older turtles being rehabbed, and there are some very large specimens in a pen in the ocean. You can walk along a pier to see them. They sell bags of turtle chow at the entrance.

There’s a large pen that extends into the ocean containing several large turtles. I think they are mature adults that for whatever reason will not survive in the wild. When you throw turtle chow in the large pen the turtles get some of it, but there is an army of assorted seagulls above and another one of little fish below that eagerly gobble up much of the food.

Albino sea turtles

 

They had several albino turtles–one tank had nothing but albinos–and had green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles there. Sea turtles are threatened for several reasons. One is because they are so darned delicious. People everywhere catch and eat them and their eggs despite the fact they are endangered. Another is because many of their hatching beaches have disappeared, taken over by development and humans who enjoy the beach environment. Another is because given their diminished numbers, the natural predation on the babies cuts seriously into their surviving numbers. Baby turtles must crawl from their nests in the sand to the ocean, all the while being attacked by birds. Once in the water, the babies are an easy snack for fish and more birds.

After the Tortugranja, we were pretty much done with Isla. We went into town, bought some gifts, had lunch and turned in No. 8. Then it was time to pack and catch the ferry to the mainland. On the taxi ride from Puerto Juarez, the ferry port on the mainland, the driver told me he had saved up to take his family to DisneyWorld in Florida, spending $750US for visas. The visas were cancelled by the P45 administration, no explanations offered. I apologized for my country, embarrassed. This was the first time anyone in Mexico raised the subject; of course they rely on tourism, but I also think they gave us, as individuals, the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the Mexican people are for the most part friendly, kind and polite. Many times, someone stopped unasked and helped me with something–a dropped item, a suitcase, or helped me over rough ground. On the ferry, which was crowded, a man gave me his seat with his family despite my protests. The Mexicans absolutely do not deserve the cold shoulder they are getting from my country.

I was pleased throughout our trip to note that there were as many Mexicans as other nationalities on vacation in the places we went, enjoying the sights and experiences of their country. (Calakmul was an exception. Most people there were American or European. It’s a kind of remote place, after all, and not someplace you’d take kids.) I have visited Mexico a few times before and didn’t see this previously. I am hopeful this means the middle class is growing in Mexico, and more people have the leisure and money that we have taken for granted here for many decades. I believe there were more Mexican tourists in Isla Mujeres than Americans.

At some point during the trip, Linda asked me if I had enough material for the next novel. I am beginning to work on a story line, but I would say no, I do not. I came back from Moloka‘i two years ago seething with ideas and enthusiasm to start writing. I’m not there yet with this one. I think it will be a slow burn. This one has to be the best one, because after that, I am saying farewell to Sierra and Chaco, Clancy, Fred, Rose, Kaylee and Mama Labadie. Three books are enough.

Next research trip: Iceland, but not for a while. I still have to launch “Fire in the Ocean” and write the third book in the series. But I’m thinking about it!

Here are some photos, included in no particular order, but I like them for one reason or another and they didn’t fit into my narrative:

A typical Mayan arch at Uxmal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clod and friend.

Church at Valladolid.

Beautiful bas-relief at Uxmal.

Our guide Roberto, standing in front of an arched tunnel at Becan. Air funneled through this tunnel and it was as good as air conditioning in the heat and humidity of southern Yucatan.

Another captain’s tomb at Isla Mujeres. You can see the ship’s wheels in cement in the surrounding fence What you can’t see as well is the model of a ship in the glass case at the front.

Red-capped manikin, a rare sighting! At Chicaana.

Just a nice green fungus at Calakmul

Strangler figs (isn’t that a wonderfully ominous name?) growing on an unexcavated building in Calakmul.

Hotel Calakmul. This is what the jungle looks like in southern Yucatan–more like the Adirondacks.

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The Most Cheerful Graveyard in the World

One of the more colorful tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

After a restless night (me, not Tom), we wished each other happy Valentine’s Day and got into the cart to drive to town. I was much less freaked out this time. Breakfast was the first order of business, then we needed to get the cart gassed up and the wheel fixed. The rental place was right in the middle of a shopping area filled with tiendas offering artisanal crafts and touristy tchachkis, and I wondered why Francisco had not brought us here. Who knows, but I spent a couple of hours going through the shops looking for gifts. I saw all kinds of cool stuff, and a whole lot of crap, but I had no desire to haul heavy woodcarvings or painted (and fragile) pottery home, so I was primarily looking for small, non-breakable, lightweight things.

I asked around for sea glass jewelry, as that is our daughter’s passionate hobby. I only found one shop that had it, and it consisted of monumentally ugly, poorly worn pieces set clumsily in huge, heavy silver collars. I finally did find a few pieces of delicate, beautifully designed jewelry in one store, but nothing with sea glass. I think based on what I got, that she will forgive me.

Great little jewelry store, but look at their “open” sign.

Tom, as always, followed me around while I shopped without the slightest impatience, bless the man. Once I concluded the hunt, we picked up the cart–but we got a new one with no wobbly wheel and much more get-up-and-go than the original. We called it No. 8, as that was the number painted on the side. No suspension, but a huge improvement nonetheless, as it no longer wobbled and had a bit more get-up-and-go. We went to a beach where someone had told us you can find sea glass and found a lovely little swimming area, but no sea glass. I suspect that the sea glass here is of the broken beer bottle variety, anyway, but I’ll keep looking.

We came back to the hotel. I was somewhat disturbed to find a squashed, three-inch cockroach lying by the bedside table, still waving its legs. I wasn’t disturbed by the cucaracha so much–it’s the tropics, after all–as the fact that we hadn’t squashed it and the maid hadn’t done the room yet. I sent it to Xibalba (the Mayan realm of the dead) down the toilet and mopped up the mess. Nothing was missing or amiss, so oh, well. It’s not as if I brought my diamond tiara with me. We returned to the Cubano restaurant for more excellent guacamole and a ceviche to die for, with octopus and conch in it.

And then we did nothing. Just nothing. Until about 8:30 pm, which is about a half an hour before most of the local restaurants close. We weren’t starving, so we went to Chedraui down the street, which is sort of a supermarket combined with Costco—you can get everything from mopeds and washing machines to fountain drinks, dried hibiscus flowers and fish. We got some cheese, crackers, wine and snacks and went back to the hotel for a modest repast, using our kitchen for the first time.

* * * *

We set our alarm for the next morning, as we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour at 10 am. However, the weather was projected to be quite windy, followed the next day by rain. Windy conditions are poor snorkeling conditions, so we rescheduled for after the rain.

As that was our big expedition today, we had to make new plans. We had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where we had eaten the day before, and the staff recognized us, which is always nice. I didn’t feel like a heavy breakfast and had fruit and yogurt. Then we visited the cemetery.

I adore cemeteries. The older, the better. This cemetery features the self-carved gravestone of Juan Menaca, although apparently he was buried in Merida. I wanted to find his stone, but the cemetery was sufficient on its own to delight me. The majority of the tombs are created by hand, each one different, and each one a very personal tribute to the departed, which is what I love about such places. Mexicans have a very personal relationship with their dead. Everyone knows about Dia del los Muertes, Halloween, where families picnic among the tombs and catch up their dead relatives on the doings of the past year. They share food and drink with their departed loved ones and have a lively family party.

Most of the tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard were designed like little two-story houses. The top story was often enclosed by glass and protected with miniature wrought-iron grills like most Mexican houses. These enclosures were often locked with padlocks, though in some cases the closure was a simple wooden latch. Inside were offerings of liquor, plastic and real flowers, little Madonna statues and angels, candles, and other things. One fancy tomb had an entire bottle of sparkling wine. Many of the structures are electrified–I’d like to see it at night. The monuments come in all sorts of designs. While most looked like little houses, one looked like a Roman temple, and there were many other variations. No two were alike, although there were several identical angel statues, each holding an index finger to her lips, the other index finger pointed heavenwards. It had the effect of a bunch of very bossy librarians.

“How many times do we have to tell you to BE QUIET???”

Some of the tombs were crudely fashioned, others were elaborate. One looked like a suburban house, complete with artificial turf lawn. Another was fashioned in the shape of a ship–several were dedicated to sea captains, which makes sense on an island. One of the captains’ tombs had a railing composed of concrete ship’s wheels and a model ship resting in a large glass case in front. I assume it was a model of the captain’s own ship, or perhaps something he created. One structure that was made to look like a cottage was painted white with twining roses painted around the door. Several were covered in ceramic or marble tiles. The larger and taller monuments had built-in steps along the side. At first I thought perhaps these were for the deceased’s spirit to reach the offerings, but I soon realized the steps were there to allow the living to reach the little offering houses and replace the contents.

This captain still sails his boat.

Sadly, hurricanes and time have damaged many of these momento morii. The sandy ground is littered with broken marble, glass tiles, shattered bottles and glasses, and so forth. But you can sense the care and love with which these tombs are created and­—as much as possible—maintained.

We did not find Juan Menaca’s gravestone. Disappointing, but even I finally gave up. We ran a few errands and had a nice lunch and did some shopping. We did finally discover the “fiesta artisanal,” and there were some very beautiful items, some different than in the surrounding sea of tiendas, but I didn’t buy anything.

Some tombs were modest, others elaborate, but each one was different.

 

 

This one had its own lawn and a fence around the yard.

The afternoons here tend to be sweltering, even though there is always a breeze. I thought it would’ve been a nice day to swim at Playa Norte, but we stayed in out of the heat instead. Toward sunset, I thought we should go to Punta Sur and watch the sun set. Traveling south in No. 8, I saw a dog enjoying the evening breeze. This would not have been unusual except that he was lying on top of the peaked roof of a portico that stretched out in front of a house. I still wish I had gotten a photo.

When we got to Punta Sur, the facilities were closed for a wedding, but we did sit out and watch the dramatic clouds as the sun set and the storm began to gather. Frigate birds, looking like a flock of pterodactyls, hung on the wind far above us, not fishing, not doing anything, as far as we could tell. Perhaps it is enough to be able to suspend oneself above the sea like a hang-glider, taking in the gold-edged clouds, the towers of Cancun, the little rocky island below, and the darkening waters.

Sunset from Punta Sur.

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