Cover Reveal: Fire in the Ocean

As I have mentioned before, my second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” is coming out from Diversion Books in February 2018. Diversion’s art department came up with a spiffy new cover for “The Obsidian Mirror,” which will be re-issued along with the debut of “Fire in the Ocean”:

New cover for “The Obsidian Mirror”

“Fire in the Ocean” is the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” and features the same cast of characters. New twist, though–the book is set in Hawai’i on the islands of Moloka’i and Hawai’i (the Big Island).

Why, you might ask, Hawai’i? When I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror,” I drew upon strictly New World mythologies, folk tales and traditions–Native American, MesoAmerican and Voudún, avoiding the supernatural traditions that essentially migrated to the Americas from Europe. I started it as a kind of experiment after reading one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I just wanted to see if a fantasy could be crafted that entirely eschewed the standard fantasy tropes of caped adventurers, swords and sorcery–elves, vampires and trolls need not apply.  To my surprise, the experiment turned into a book.

Although I wanted to continue the adventures of Sierra and her friends, I didn’t want to repeat the setting, plot, or other key elements of “The Obsidian Mirror.” So I picked Hawai’i as the venue for the sequel because: 1) I love Hawai’i ; 2) Hawai’i is also “New World,” and therefore fit into the strictures I had placed on myself; 3) it was an excuse to go back to the islands to do research. (And an amazing and wonderful trip it was, as those of you who have followed my blog for a while know!)

Why Moloka’i? Well, it turns out that Moloka’i in ancient times was known as the island of sorcerers. The island has its own take on the mythology and its own unique legends. Moloka’i proved to be a rich source of information and experiences, most of which were incorporated into “Fire in the Ocean.” As for why I chose the Big Island for part of the story–you’ll have to read the book.

Diversion Books just sent me the cover design for “Fire in the Ocean.” What do you think?

Cover Design for “Fire in the Ocean”

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.

Warning: This Post Contains Shameless Self-Promotion

New Cover

Recently I finished editing the first draft of “Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror.” I sent it off to my alpha readers and editor, and I can finally relax and think about something else for a while.

Such as promoting “The Obsidian Mirror.” While I was in the throes of writing the sequel, I did next to nothing about promoting my published work. A writer’s work is never done, I guess.

Why should you read “The Obsidian Mirror”? Short answer: because it’s a fun read. I read largely for entertainment. I like books that take you away and let you live someone else’s life for a while. I wrote “Obsidian” to be that kind of book: a diversion, a book I would love reading myself. It’s probably not a coincidence that the second publisher of the book is Diversion Books—they specialize in just that kind of novel.

Another reason to read “Obsidian” is because it is based on the mythologies and folklore of the Americas, which makes it a bit different. The idea occurred to me after finishing one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I loved the book, but started wondering why so much fantasy is based on proto-European, pre-Industrial Age tropes such as elves, faeries, dragons, and caped adventurers. The Americas have thousands of mythologies, folk tales and traditions that are largely ignored by fantasy writers.

I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror” as a kind of personal experiment. Meso-American gods and Coyote the Trickster, an Inuit ice demon and a mannegishi named Fred are some of the characters. What I did not anticipate is that I would fall in love with my characters and be driven to finish the book. Having done that, I felt compelled to get it published.

I don’t have much to brag about. I’m not a best-selling author. I have won no prestigious awards for my fiction writing. But I do have one thing that gives me modest bragging rights.

I have heard authors talk about receiving hundreds of rejection slips. One writer said he had a drawer filled with 450 rejection slips for his novel. That didn’t happen with “The Obsidian Mirror.” I approached perhaps 10 publishers and/or agents before AEC Stellar agreed to publish the book. When AEC Stellar bit the dust, I approached about five publishers before Diversion Books picked it up, re-published it and agreed to publish the sequel.

So I may not have sold a million copies, but I never had any problem finding a publisher. As a matter of fact, years after I originally submitted the manuscript to their slush pile, Baen Books got back to me and said they were interested in it. The early bird gets the book, Baen.

So why am I proud of this? Because I have some independent assessments that people will enjoy reading my novel. Add to that, the several four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and you might conclude that you would enjoy it, too. To make it super-easy for you to find the book, here it is: http://amzn.to/1MQBvkd

I did warn you.

 

 

I Will Be Speaking at the Los Gatos Literary Fair August 22

I will be making a short presentation at the Los Gatos, CA Literary Fair, Saturday, August 22. The Fair is from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m. I will also be signing copies of “The Obsidian Mirror.” I’d love to see you there if you happen to be in the neighborhood!

2015 LG Lit Fair flyer

Race Is Dead. Racism Is Alive and Well.

Diverse group of kids outside.

With the spate of recent police killings of blacks and the resultant urban riots, race has bullied its way to the forefront of American consciousness yet again. Along with the rest of you, I have read the various postings and news stories—and been horrified by the nasty, cruel, bigoted comments that follow.

What astounds me is that people still think race is a thing. With DNA science and technology, it has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the concept of race is completely, utterly false. There is no such thing as race.

Let that sink in: there is no such thing as race.

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health, “All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup.” The remaining 0.1% difference accounts for diversity in skin tone, eye color and shape, and thousands of other variations between one individual and another. It has also been shown that every human being on Earth can trace his or her DNA ancestry back to Ethiopia of about 150,000 years ago. We are ALL out of Africa, every last one of us.

This means that a bushman in the Kalahari Desert, an office worker of European descent in New York and a factory worker in Taiwan are almost literally brothers. All that hatred, violence, fear, injustice, and bloodshed is over a 0.1% difference between us that takes place in structures so small we can’t see them without a scanning electron microscope.

Racism has apparently been with us as long as there have been hominids. Jane Goodall observed young male chimpanzees band together to hunt and bludgeon to death chimps of a different social group (a phenomenon that caused her a great deal of disillusionment and sorrow). There is some archeological evidence that homo sapiens may have caused the demise of other early hominids such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised—after all, human DNA differs from chimpanzee DNA by only 1.2% (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics). That makes us cousins, if not brothers.

So here we are, thousands upon thousands of years later, still beating each other up for being different. During the 19th Century, (white) anthropologists and others tried to deploy science to support race theory. “Scientists” measured skulls and defined “racial” characteristics to prove that there were different races of men. Of course, they had already decided—scientifically, of course!—that Adam and Eve were white, making the white race the “original” and the peak of creation. Falling short of the white measurement stick, all other races were deemed inferior. All kinds of ludicrous models were set up to “prove” this, spawning horrors like eugenics, genocide and the Nazi Holocaust.

In the clear light of DNA science, all these antique constructions were blown away like the dark and ugly cobwebs they were. Unfortunately, much of the world does not seem to have received the message. Although the concept of “race” is utterly false, racism is very real.

I read recently (sorry, can’t remember where) that racism today is really tribalism—“Us” versus “Them”—and that race has little to do with it. That may be true, but if you ask a white bigot about why he hates blacks, you’ll hear a lot of claptrap about the differences between the “races.”

There’s also nonsense coming from the side of the oppressed, probably in natural retaliation for the crimes of racism. For instance, I have read that there is no such thing as reverse racism. The idea is that if you are not a member of an oppressed minority, you cannot be victimized by racism; racism can be directed only from the empowered toward the powerless. C’mon, guys. That’s just justifying racism under a new euphemism. It’s a made-up notion with no more basis in fact than “blacks aren’t intelligent enough to go to college.” Human beings have a tragic penchant for attacking “The Other,” and what color you are makes no difference.

My granddaughters are of “mixed” DNA. We know from DNA tests of their parents that they have genes inherited from almost every group on Earth. (There must be some interesting stories back there!) They are beautiful, tender, loving, and they have no idea at all that there is a concept called ”race.”

I want these children to grow up in a world where “race” is viewed as a hideous artifact of a long-dead age. There is no such thing as race. There are only human beings in their infinite and interesting variety. Help me get the word out.

Diversion Books Announces Re-publication of “The Obsidian Mirror”

New Cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

DIVERSIONBOOKS

seth@diversionbooks.com

DIVERSION BOOKS RESCUES THE OBSIDIAN MIRROR, RELEASES NEW VERSION OF FANTASY NOVEL

May 15, 2015—Diversion Books today released The Obsidian Mirror, an inventive high tech-meets-Aztec fantasy novel by Silicon Valley public relations veteran K.D. Keenan, marking the second time the novel has been issued in less than a year.

Diversion Books, which publishes a number of classic fantasy authors—including Ursula K. Le Guin, M.K. Wren and Henry Kuttner—scooped up the title after its original publisher, AEC Stellar Publishing, went out of business.  “The Obsidian Mirror is a terrifically fun read,” said acquiring editor Laura Duane. “It recalls the wit and invention of Douglas Adams, and fits perfectly with many of our other fantasy titles.”

The Obsidian Mirror tells the story of Sierra Carter, an out-of-work PR executive who receives a call from Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of the Aztecs, and discovers that her former firm’s semiconductors are a means of spreading a deadly evil around the world.  Powering these nasty vibes is Necocyaotl, Aztec god of death and destruction, who has placed his essence in every device, causing people to place their self-interest and selfish desires above all else.

Carter, with the help of some paranormal pals—Chaco, a handsome young man when he isn’t being a coyote; Fred, the mannegishi with the ability to disappear at will; and Rose, a Native American shaman—learns how to develop her inner powers. She’ll need them, because Necocyaotl’s team is playing for keeps, and the evil god brings an ice demon, dark spirits, and assorted monsters into the game to bolster his more human henchmen.

The Obsidian Mirror is available as an eBook from Diversion Books, Amazon, Apple’s store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Books.

ABOUT DIVERSION BOOKS:

Founded in 2010, Diversion Books has emerged as a premier digital publishing house, partnering with top literary agencies, media companies, and authors to build a rapidly -growing catalog across a range of genres. With its cutting-edge marketing and versatility in the changing landscape, Diversion proudly publishes top-tier authors old and new, building the next generation publishing company, one great book at a time.

FOR MEDIA QUESTIONS, PLEASE CONTACT:

Seth Kaufman, Sales & Media Strategist

seth@diversionbooks.com

 

 

Writing: The Never-Ending Journey

Photo by Bec Brown

Photo by Bec Brown

When I first started this blog, the subtitle was “A Blog about Writing a Novel.” I thought of it as a journal documenting the process of writing my first novel and trying to get it published. Of course, at the time, I had no idea whether I would get it published (or even finished).

Well, “The Obsidian Mirror” was finished and published, and now will be republished by Diversion Books. (They are giving it a new cover as well, which should be interesting. I can’t wait.) I have a contract for the sequel from Diversion, and I have written about 20% of the first draft.

So it’s no longer a blog about writing a novel. It’s about the journey I am on as an author. I have changed the subtitle to “The Journey to Authorship.”

Now, that sounds like I will be forever journeying toward a goal, but never reaching it. That would be exactly right.

I learned a huge amount about writing a novel when I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” I revised it eight times. I had many people read it and comment on it, including the wonderful Gail Z. Martin, who has authored numerous fantasy novels herself.

Now I am trying to put those lessons to good use in the sequel. I am also trying out new things. For example, the antagonist in “Fire in the Ocean” (working title) is not an evil god. He’s not even evil. As a reader, I am much more interested in complex characters than cardboard cutouts, but as a writer, it’s really easy to fall into the mistake of making evil characters 100% evil, twiddling their mustachios and laughing, “BWAHAHAHAH!” (Okay, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.) So I am trying to create a more complex character, one who is human, with human strengths and weaknesses, whose actions are not motivated by pure nastiness.

I have to admit, this is a bit scary for me, and I am proceeding with this character in baby steps. But, as in “The Obsidian Mirror,” I am still trying to understand why perfectly normal people do massively destructive things to the environment—even though they have to live the consequences along with the rest of us.

Another challenge is the setting in Hawai’i. “The Obsidian Mirror” was set in Silicon Valley, where I lived and worked for more than 30 years, so I knew it very well. I have visited Hawai’i many times and love it, but I am not as intimately familiar with it as I am with Silicon Valley. I spent eight days on Moloka’i, where much of the novel takes place, but eight days doesn’t make me an expert. Fortunately, I made some friends in Moloka’i while I was there, and I am hoping they will help to correct any inaccuracies or general idiocies I may commit.

So I am still learning and stretching my authorial wings. I am on a journey I suspect I will never complete, because I hope always to be learning more about my craft and growing as a writer. If I stop doing that, I will stop writing.

Terry Pratchett Is Gone, and I Miss Him

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

Today, I was going to write about some good news, but then the sad news arrived: Terry Pratchett died.

I have written about Pratchett before in these pages because he is one of my best-loved authors. He was a fantasy writer who was also a brilliant satirist and humorist of the highest order. Reading a new Pratchett book was for me as richly satisfying as artisan chocolate, and it lasted a good deal longer. (Plus I can go back and re-experience the books, which is hard, not to say disgusting, when chocolate is involved.)

Pratchett used his fantasy creation, the Discworld, to satirize our absurdities in this world. Nothing was off-limits for him. Personally, I think one of his finest pieces was “Monstrous Regiment,” which satirized bias against women and the absurdity of religion, which are deeply interconnected. Unlike fellow satirist and countryman Evelyn Waugh, Pratchett never indulged in invective; instead he made you laugh. And when you laugh, you become more open. And becoming open to new perspectives is how hearts and minds get changed.

There are, according to Wikipedia, 41 novels in the Discworld series. Pratchett also wrote several other novels, including “Good Omens” with the luminous Neil Gaiman, a series of children’s books, “The Long Earth” series with Stephen Baxter, and numerous handy guides to Discworld, short stories, and more. There’s a lot more to say about this man. He was awarded an O.B.E. and later knighted, so he is officially Sir Terry Pratchett. He suffered from a particularly vicious form of Alzheimer’s disease for eight years, and bore it with humor and bravery. He was deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of the British Isles, and commented to a meeting of folklorists that he viewed folklore much as a carpenter views trees. Wikipedia has an exhaustive amount of material on Pratchett and also his novels, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here–but he was a man of many parts.

I enjoy everything Pratchett wrote, but Discworld holds a special place in my heart (me and millions of others). He created a world so rich in detail, teeming with fascinating characters and creatures, that a return to Discworld was a richly enjoyable experience every time. I love his witches, especially grumpy and wise old Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who had a lively girlhood and likes her pint or two. I love brave Captain Carrot, the 6 foot-plus dwarf who is the unacknowledged King of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest and (probably) most noisome city. And Lord Vetinari, the ultimate politician who always manages to keep things on course without too much bloodshed. And Death, who always SPEAKS IN CAPITALS (and has the last word). In Discworld, you meet hundreds of characters who are so beautifully drawn that they leave the mark of their personalities with you forever.

But the real reason I cried when I heard he had died is because he was kind to me once. I have related this before, but here it is again:

You see, I met Connie Willis first. I was in the vendors’ hall at Worldcon when it came to San Jose, CA several years ago. I happened to glimpse her nametag. Connie Willis is also a favorite author, so I introduced myself—and proceeded to commit every rabid-fan sin it is possible to commit in attempting to praise her work. Even as I heard the vapid words burbling out of my mouth, I knew I was doomed. The expression of pain on Ms. Willis’ face only confirmed my gauche blundering. I attempted to extricate myself by saying, “Well, I’m starting to drool on you, so I guess I’d better go now.” Ms. Willis nodded mute agreement, and I slunk away with my tail between my legs, feeling like a complete moron.

I was standing at a vendor’s stall wondering if it is possible to actually die of embarrassment when a tidy gentleman with a gray beard and a black fedora walked up. I thought he looked familiar, but when the vendor called him “Mr. Pratchett,” my suspicions were confirmed. He stood right next to me as the vendor handed him a CD, saying, “I’ve been saving this for you, but I was afraid I might come across as a rabid fan.” (Like me, I thought.)

Pratchett took the CD and said, “I adore rabid fans!”

I turned to him and said, “Well, then, would you mind if I drooled on your shoulder?”

Pratchett responded, “Not at all—but would you mind drooling on this shoulder”—he patted his right shoulder—“as the other one is already rather damp?”

Instantly, the oppressive cloud of feeling foolish lifted and disappeared. I will never forget how Terry Pratchett’s humor and kindness brightened my day and turned my embarrassment into laughter. (Not that I mean to say Connie Willis made me feel bad. I made myself feel bad. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.)

And now this kind, brilliant, prolific and amazing writer is gone. There will be no more tales of Discworld to anticipate with glee. His brilliance continues to shine in his work, which will live for a long, long time. He set a high standard for humanity. I only hope that someday we live up to it.

The last Tweet on Pratchett's account. Fans will know who is speaking.

The last Tweet on Pratchett’s account. Fans will know who is speaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Folk Lore: There’s No Such Thing

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s “Folklore of Discworld,” co-written with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson. (Do people actually get paid for knowing about folklore? What a great job!) Pratchett and Simpson discuss the relationship between the Discworld’s traditions and those of Earth (with the conceit that folklore, tropes and memes are particles of inspiration that drift across the multiverse, so that myths of Discworld wind up here, and vice versa).

While reading (actually listening to) this book, it struck me how deeply I am attracted to the folklore of the British Isles (although this is obviously not a particularly rare trait, as evidenced by libraries full of epic fantasies, tales of witches and warlocks, dragons and cloaked heroes and faeries). Nothing entranced me more as a child than tales of banshees, pookahs, faeries, disappearing gold pieces, leprechauns, elves and pixies. As an adult, I am still entranced by Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, G.R.R. Martin, and many less well known authors who write in that tradition—whether humorous or not. It’s one of the reasons I adore Pratchett, who once remarked that he regarded folklore much as a carpenter regards trees.

Why be so attracted to the folklore of another place? I could put it down to my Scots-Irish ancestry. But I think the real explanation is that the folklore of my own time and place is sparse and rather unimaginative. Perhaps if I had grown up in Louisiana or some place with more history than California, I would have a healthy backlog of swamp critters, ghosts, haunted mansions, and eerie sightings to freshen the imagination. As it is, I am hard put to say exactly what constitutes folklore here.

Sure, we told each other the stories about the guy and girl making out in the car who hear on the radio about the escaped madman with a hook for a hand. And step on a crack, break your mother’s back. (As this never happened, I didn’t believe it for long.) But these things lacked the enchantment I found in fairy stories and old tales from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Witches, warlocks and wizards. Spirit horses. Water nymphs. Faery gold. Selkies. Leaving milk out for the Good Folk. Strange dancing lights on the moors at night. The Wild Hunt. King Arthur.

An incredibly high percentage of American “folklore” has disappointingly mundane origins. Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox, Babe, appears to have originated in the oral tradition of lumberjacks, but according to Wikipedia, was “later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally a promotional character created for Montgomery Ward. Pecos Bill was a character created by short story writer Edward S. O’Reilly in the early 20th Century. Johnny Appleseed was a real person, John Chapman, but all he did was plant apple trees, not conjure gold and silver apples or something interesting like that. Santa Claus comes closest to having true folkloric origins, but in America, even he was largely shaped by modern forces in the form of Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823:

“His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself…”

Moore changed the majesty of Father Christmas, a tall, thin gentleman wreathed with holly and robed in green, into a “right jolly old elf,” later immortalized in his modern incarnation by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Moore also invented the eight tiny reindeer, which were not found in the stable of Father Christmas.

Where’s the magic in all this? Sadly lacking, in my opinion. Our modern American monsters are the psychopaths, serial killers, stalkers of children, terrorists real and imagined, and that guy with the hook, who may be folkloric, but he’s not very magical. Our urban legends may technically be folklore, but flashing your headlights getting you in trouble with gangs, or tapeworm eggs in bubble gum, or waking up in a bath of ice with your kidneys missing falls well short of enchantment.

I will admit that we Americans have our share of cryptozoids. Probably the leading examples of this are Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and El Chupacabra (the goatsucker). El Chupa is an import from Mexico, where apparently they are so folklore-rich that some of it is oozing across the border. None of these to my knowledge is actually magic; it’s just that no one has ever proved they exist, so of course, lots of people believe in them. Here’s a map of North American cryptozoology, if you’re interested in more.

And, of course, there’s a lot of flying saucer lore. But I don’t think any of the anal probees would say that there was magic involved.

As I mentioned before, it may depend on where you grew up. In Hawaii it is clear that many ethnic Hawaiians (and also many non-ethnic Hawaiians) believe in the old lore. I met people who believe in ghosts, in Pele and other ancient gods, in Menehune, and in spirits generally, both good and evil.

Magic offers the possibility of the good and brave and clever overcoming evil or at least magical trickery, whereas our monsters are sometimes overcome by the judicial system (and sometimes not). Magic also casts a glamor over folk tales; in fact the word “glamor” used to mean magic or enchantment. Our “folk” heroes are artificially created to make money—although they are still presented to schoolchildren as though they were genuine. I suppose Pratchett would say that when people start to believe in something, it transforms that thing into folklore. But no one really believes in Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Thank heaven, some children still believe in Santa Claus, and around a campfire at night, you can believe anything. But I still think we are a culture that is sorely deprived of a true folkloric element.

Do you agree or disagree? Did you hear a truly magical (and American) story when you were a child? Did you have a haunted house on your street where lights and music could be heard at night? Were tales of helpful pixies or harmful sprites told in your neighborhood?

I would love to hear from you if you have such stories to tell!

The Last Day on Molokai and a Return to Halawa Valley

Tom really is a hero. He agreed to drive the steep, winding, one-lane road back to Halawa Valley so that we could visit the beach there and maybe hike to the waterfalls. He surprised me–and this is after 43 years of marriage.

The drive was spectacular, and we stopped to take photos of things we remembered, but hadn’t stopped for the first time because of unfamiliarity with the road. For instance, there’s this sign:

Nene crossing sign.

Nene crossing sign.

Nene (pronounced nay-nay) are the native Hawaiian geese, and they are endangered. Sadly, we didn’t see any geese, just the sign. We also saw this, which we think is a roadside memorial, but it’s a bit different than the usual. In addition to the sun made of white coral, there were offerings:

Roadside memorial.

Roadside memorial.

There was no one waiting at the bottom of the road this time. We parked and walked down the dirt road to the beach. There is a river flowing into the sea here, and it’s  picturesque:

River at Halawa Valley.

River at Halawa Valley.

 

Beach at Halawa Valley.

Beach at Halawa Valley.

 

We picked our way along the beach, and I saw what I expected; lots of small pieces of plastic in the sand, white and blue, black and gray, yellow and red–the detritus of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collecting on this remote beach. I began picking up the larger pieces and putting them in my pocket. by the time we left, both pockets were bulging, and my arms were full of still larger chunks, bottles, and a small section of plastic fence. Tom gently makes fun of my plastic policing, but I regard it as the little that I can do to make it better. Worth nothing in the face of the magnitude of the problem, I agree. And many of the pieces were so small as to be impossible to retrieve, reminding me of “Rumplestiltskin,” where the poor girl has to count all the grains of sand or spin straw into gold.

Some of my plastic finds. Pockets are bulging with smaller bits.

Some of my plastic finds. Pockets are bulging with smaller bits.

A Hawaiian family was picnicking on the beach. A young woman named Noni (noh-nee, means “beautiful”) was sitting on the sand, while her sister, husband and nephew were on the rocky point under the cliffs, fishing. We chatted for a while, and then her husband came back with a net bag full of ‘opihi (oh-pee-hee, limpets). We asked what they were going to do with them, and he said they were best barbecued, but could be eaten right out of the shell. Did we want to try one?

Yes, we did. He had lost his knife while prying ‘opihi off the rocks, but he used one limpet shell to dislodge the resident of another shell, and offered us some. They were rubbery, and the primary taste was a mild saltiness, but I’m sure they are delicious barbecued. This inside of the shell had a lovely iridescence, tinged with green. I washed mine out and brought it home with me.

Snack time!

Snack time!

We asked about the hike to the falls. Noni said it was really difficult, and she hadn’t done it in 20 years, so we decided to give it a miss. (Later, I learned that it takes two hours just to get there. I probably made the right decision.) After dumping my collected plastic in the trash bins provided, we got into our car and drove slowly back, taking pictures as we went.

Rainforest stream.

Rainforest stream.

Once we were back in two-lane country again, we stopped to take a picture of this:

Chicken condos.

Chicken condos.

I called it “chicken condos,” as they appear to be individual shelters for chickens or roosters. As I was taking the picture, a pack of dogs ran up to the fence and barked their heads off. A very large Hawaiian came down the drive, looking rather menacing. I waved and said I was just taking a picture of his chickens. He didn’t smile, but waved more or less amicably and went back down the drive. My guess is that he’s raising fighting cocks, which is abhorrent, but I don’t know.

The only real proof we saw that there are deer on Moloka'i.

The only real proof we saw that there are deer on Moloka’i.

We also stopped at a grove of coconut palms, right outside of Kaunakakai. This used to be a much larger grove called “the Queen’s Grove,” because it was planted for the wife of King Kamehameha V. It’s right by the beach, and the trees must be 100 feet tall, each with a cluster of coconuts clinging to the top under its fronds. There are piles of coconuts on the ground, both fresh, green ones and old, hairy ones. The top of my head began to feel peculiarly vulnerable as I imagined what a coconut would do to it after a drop of 100 feet, so I left.

The Queen's Grove.

The Queen’s Grove.

Then back to the condo. I was very behind in my journaling, so spent most of the late afternoon writing, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks nearby, and enjoying the trade winds. When we went to bed, another three-inch centipede was occupying the hallway upstairs, and I gave him the same treatment I gave Jesse the Centipede a few nights ago–a beating with my flip-flop. Neither centipede put up a fight, making me think they were unwell to begin with.

And so the journey came to an end, as all journeys must do–which is the beginning of another journey for me; writing a new novel. The entire experience was amazing. People were so helpful and kind, so willing to bring me into their lives a little bit. It was extremely touching, and I will never forget the experiences I had here. As a parting wave, here are the signs that greet new arrivals to Moloka’i, and bid departing travellers farewell:

Aloha!

Aloha!