“Lords of the Night” Chapter One

The following is the entirety of Chapter 1 from “Lords of the Night,” now available at Amazon.com:

“Who do you think you are, Chaco? A drill sergeant?” Sierra snarled. She slipped off the greased bowling ball, dropping the dishes she had been balancing on the end of a broomstick. The dishes shattered on the tile floor of her kitchen. She picked her way through the shards in oily bare feet, muttering, and seized a glass of water, gulping it as she wiped away the sweat pouring down her face and neck.

“I warned you this would be hard,” said Chaco. He passed a hand over the ruined dishes and they disappeared. He cocked his head at her, amber eyes steady. 

“Yeah, you did,” Sierra responded. “But what the hell does standing on a greased bowling ball and destroying crockery have to do with becoming a sorceress? I’m not applying to Cirque du Soleil for a job.”

“Take a break,” Chaco replied peaceably, but his equanimity did not soothe her.

“I AM taking a break,” Sierra shot back. “Are you going to answer my question?”

Chaco lowered his lithe body into a chair, raking fingers through his dark hair. “As I told you when we started, the training is mental, spiritual, and physical. This is part of the physical training. A magic worker will often find him—or her—self in physically dangerous situations. You need to be strong, very strong, and your balance, aim, and precision must be honed to the highest degree. Think of yourself as an Olympic athlete…”

Sierra glanced down at her body, clad in shorts and tank top. She had been toned and on the slender side when she and Chaco had begun her training. Now she saw muscle definition in her thighs, where before they had merely been strong and well-shaped. The training was definitely making a difference. But god, she was working hard! And she hated it.

“I don’t get it,” she said, still cross. She knew Chaco was only doing his best to help, but at the moment, she didn’t care. “You never exercise. You never practice. Sure, you noodle around with trying new magics once in a while, but I’ve never seen you balancing on a greasy bowling ball. Do you do it when I’m not around or something?”

Sensing that Sierra was easing up a bit, Chaco laughed. “I’m a demigod. I don’t have to practice. When you become a demigod—or full-on goddess—you won’t have to practice either.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Well, you can’t expect to become a goddess overnight. You have to work at it. Like becoming Miss Universe or something.”

“Are you telling me that I’ll become a goddess if I continue the training?”

“Oh, no. There are no guarantees. Once you complete the training, there are still the traditional trials and tribulations.”

“I don’t want to be a goddess, Chaco. Your training sucks and I’m done.” Sierra put down her glass and stalked away, leaving Chaco in the kitchen, smiling to himself.

#

One year previously, Sierra had inherited a comfortable sum of money and a house from her fiancé, Clancy Forrester. There was only one problem; she suspected Clancy wasn’t actually dead. No body had been found and her friend Rose, who had witnessed Clancy’s fall from the side of a boat, said Clancy had never hit the water. If he had, he would have died, as the water was boiling from an undersea volcanic eruption. 

The inheritance bothered her conscience, but she rationalized that if Clancy were alive somewhere, she would need the money to find him. She quit her job as communications executive with the Clear Days Foundation—a job she loved—to have the time to search for him. She thought Clancy would forgive her for selling his house and spending his money when and if she ever found him. And she knew she needed training to fully harness the powers that would enable her to find Clancy and rescue him from . . . whatever he needed to be rescued from. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what he needed to be rescued from. In point of fact, she also didn’t know when he needed to be rescued, but she and her friends were working on that. 

While she was figuring out what she needed to do to find Clancy, she sold her own modest townhouse in Mountain View, California as well as Clancy’s highly sought-after ranch house in Sunnyvale. She added those proceeds to the three million dollars Clancy had left her in investments and began looking for a house where she could train in privacy. Her friend Rose, a Native American shaman, had suggested purchasing a remote cabin. 

“You’re going to need privacy—real privacy—and alone time now,” Rose had said. “This training is serious business and you need to concentrate. And you don’t need nosy neighbors.” Sierra bought a cabin in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was remote enough to satisfy her friend.

However, Rose had refused to train Sierra herself. “You’ve already gone beyond me in strength,” Rose had said. “There’s really nothing more I can teach you.”

Sierra also asked her friend Mama Labadie to train her. Mama Labadie was a Voudún houngan whose ability to communicate with her loa—or at least with the loa called Madame Ézilée—had come in handy many times during Sierra’s earlier adventures. “No, uh-uh, and absolutely not,” was the houngan’s response. “You’re already scary strong. You should ask Madam Ézilée, not me. She might be strong enough to teach you before you get somebody killed.” 

Kaylee, Sierra’s former work colleague and now a fast friend, was a Voudún practitioner, but claimed absolutely no occult powers. “I’ve been watching you,” Kaylee told her when Sierra groused a bit about Mama and Rose’s refusals to train her. “You’re powerful. You’ve gone wa-a-ay beyond Mama and Rose. They were right to turn you down. Sugar, you need to find someone who’s got more oomph than you do.”

#

One evening, as Sierra was unwrapping china mugs in her new kitchen and putting them on shelves, she complained to Chaco, “They’ve been telling me forever that I need to exercise my powers. That I need to train. But when I ask now? No dice. Mama and Rose won’t help me. Kaylee says she can’t help me. I don’t get it—they like Clancy. They want to get him back. I mean . . . don’t they?”

Chaco, his hands full of packing materials, took a moment to answer. “Of course they like him,” he finally said, swiping raven-black hair away from his face. “They probably liked Clancy more than he liked them.”

Sierra had to admit this was likely true, even if she didn’t like the past tense. Clancy had never been entirely comfortable around the “Three Weird Sisters,” as he called her three closest female friends. “Okay, but still. Wouldn’t you think they would help me to find him?”

Chaco put down a salt and pepper shaker set and sat in one of the kitchen chairs. “Do you want to have a serious conversation about this, or are you just bitching?”

Sierra set two mugs in a cupboard and sat down opposite Chaco. “I want a serious conversation. Tell me.”

“Let me make an analogy. Let’s say you’re a golfer, and you want to improve your game, maybe even play competitively. Do you go to your golfing buddy for training? The one who plays worse than you?”

“Well, obviously no. I take your point. But how am I going to find a teacher who’s better than me, if I’ve somehow gotten so strong?”

Chaco sat quietly, regarding her with his amber eyes. His expressive lips were slightly curved, his body relaxed and boneless-looking in the wooden chair. Like his alternate form, a coyote, he had the gift of seeming at home wherever he was. He continued to gaze at her in silence.

“You mean . . . you?” she finally asked.

“Who else is there?”

And that was that. She began her training in magic to find and rescue Clancy, wherever and whenever he might be. Chaco moved into Sierra’s second bedroom (she didn’t ask where he had been living before) to dedicate his time to her training. She expected that his residency would result in a renewed interest in getting her into his bed, but to her surprise he treated her as a comrade-in-arms with none of his usual sly suggestions. She found herself staring from time to time at Chaco’s face, with its long, chiseled planes, his golden eyes, his nicely muscled…and then she would flush with guilt at the thought of Clancy. Clancy, who would not be lost if it weren’t for his love for Sierra. But having Chaco around was convenient, and he was behaving himself, so the arrangement made sense.

Chaco had concentrated first on her powers, her mana. In the beginning, Sierra had envisioned her mana as colored flames, erratic and difficult to control. Gradually, she had come to see her powers as brightly colored ribbons twining in space, of every color she knew and some she didn’t. Chaco was able to visualize along with her. “There, right there,” he’d say. “That bright pink one? That’s for healing. Wrap it around your sore knee and see what happens.”

In the next moment, Sierra blinked at him in surprise. “The pain is gone!”

“You can heal other people, too. Try it the next time you see someone limping or with a bandage.”

“Won’t that be kind of obvious?”

“How would they know?” he asked reasonably. “You don’t have to wave a magic wand or recite a spell. They can’t see your mana—only you can. And me, of course.”

Sierra rather enjoyed the mana-strengthening sessions. She no longer endured sprained muscles or headaches. The gold ribbons were for battle. The silver ones were for moving things, the black ones were for…Sierra didn’t know what the black ones were for. They weren’t actually black, as they shifted between deepest indigo, bottle green, copper, and . . . something else . . . as she watched them.

“Chaco, what are the black ribbons for?” she inquired one day as she and Chaco took a break by the little creek that ran near her cabin.

“Black ribbons?”

“Yeah, like this,” and she called the black ribbons up, letting them twist and coil in her mind’s eye, glittering slowly.

“No!” Chaco yelled. He shook her and the twining black ribbons vanished. 

“What the hell?”” Sierra scrambled to her feet and glared at him. “What’d you do that for?”

Chaco remained seated, gazing at her seriously. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Those … black ribbons. Don’t use them. That is not mana that you can control. If you try, the mana will control you.”

“Then why do I have it?”

Chaco just shook his head. “I suppose we all have something like that inside. Something uncontrollable and dark. Just don’t use dark mana.” He rose in one smooth motion, then effected a dizzying transformation. His face elongated like melting wax, and as Sierra watched, his body hunched, arms and legs growing crooked and furry. Within a few heartbeats, a large, handsomely furred coyote stood next to her. He turned and trotted away into the shadows between the redwoods. Sierra watched him go, a hundred questions unanswered.

#

While she was training, Sierra tried to determine where Clancy had gone, specifically. The loa had indicated in their usual infuriatingly vague way that Clancy was alive and in the Yucatan Peninsula, but had then become tight-lipped and uncommunicative. The Yucatan constituted 76,300 square miles, which was impossibly large to search. Of even greater concern was the question of when. If Clancy had been whisked off to the Mayan Riviera, or even to a remote jungle, surely, he would have been found by now. Unless he’s dead, whispered a sombre voice in Sierra’s mind. 

“Are we certain Clancy didn’t die when he went over the side of the boat?” she asked Rose and Kaylee, not for the first time. Kaylee hadn’t been in Moloka’i when Clancy disappeared, but Rose had been present.

“No, he never went into the water,” said Rose, patiently. “I don’t want to get too graphic here, but do you remember what happened to all those sharks and other fish?”

Sierra shuddered. She remembered the pale, poached bodies of tiger sharks, boiled to death by the wrath of Pele beneath the sea.

“Yes, I do, and Clancy wasn’t among them. But I feel like I’m grasping at straws here. We have nothing to go on but your amulet. Why did you give it to Clancy, by the way? He didn’t—doesn’t—believe in things like that.”

“Once in a while, I ‘see’ a darkness hanging around a person. It usually means they’re about to die, whether by accident or suicide. I saw this darkness around Clancy shortly before we went out to the wind farm where he went over the side of our boat. My amulet is powerfully protective, so I asked Clancy to wear it. When I handed it to him it was in a little leather medicine bag, but he took the amulet out and wore it around his neck, under his shirt. Probably so people wouldn’t see it, is my guess.”

“Do you know anything about the amulet? Where it was made? When it was made?” asked Kaylee.

“I know it was made in the Yucatan Peninsula during Mayan times, because it represents a scroll serpent or spirit snake, which was peculiar to the region. It represents Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, with an ancestor spirit emerging from its mouth. I don’t know anything more about it,” concluded Rose.

“Wait a minute,” said Kaylee. “I thought Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent?”

Rose smiled. “Yep. He was—is. He was the plumed serpent of the Aztecs. But Kukulcan came first, with the Maya. If you encounter him again you could ask, but I suspect they are the same Avatar, viewed through different lenses.”

The women thought for several minutes, each pursuing the question of how the amulet might help them locate Clancy. Rose said, “You know, a few years ago I took pictures of all the Native American artifacts that I’ve collected, just in case I needed them for insurance. I must have photographed the amulet, too. The pictures are on a flash drive that I put in my safety deposit box. Maybe the photo will show us some detail that I’ve forgotten.”

A quick trip to the bank, and the flash drive was inserted into Rose’s computer, Sierra and Kaylee hanging impatiently over her shoulder. She located the right files and brought up two photographs of a green stone carving, an elaborately curlicued serpent figure. Rose pointed out the figure of the ancestor spirit emerging from the creature’s mouth.

“What’s this other one?” asked Kaylee, pointing at the second photo. At first, it looked like a reverse image of the first, then Sierra realized it depicted the back of the intricately carved amulet.

“Rose, there’s something carved on the back! What does it say?” Sierra asked, pointing to the screen.

Rose peered at the image. She shook her head. “I have no idea.”

Where the Ideas Live

People sometimes ask me how I get ideas for my books. The short answer is: I don’t. I think people sometimes envision authors sitting at their elaborately carved Renaissance desk, complete with quill pen, and an exclamation point appears with a brand-new, amazing idea for a story! Eureka!

Maybe that’s how it works for some authors, I don’t know. The way it works for me is that I decide what part of the world I want a story to take place in, and then I go to that place. I let the place tell me the story. If that sounds mystical or authorish, it isn’t. It’s just how it works for me.

The first book of my trilogy, “The Obsidian Mirror,” took place mostly in Silicon Valley because that’s where I was living and working at the time. I understood the high tech industries, so my protagonist, Sierra, was a high tech public relations person (as I had been, many moons ago). The idea for the basis of the story came from my familiarity with the semiconductor industry and the ubiquity of integrated circuits around the world.

The second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” had its origins in a Hawai‘ian vacation on the island of Oahu. I decided I wanted to set a novel in Hawai’i. Once home, I began planning a research trip the way I thought an author ought to—I contacted the Bishop Museum, the leading museum of Polynesian culture in the world. I contacted the University of Hawaii Dept. of Hawaiian Studies (or some such). I made reservations to go to Oahu to meet with these knowledgeable people.

Crickets. No one ever responded to my requests. So I decided that the story would be set on Moloka‘i, because that is the island of sorcery, according to the ancient Hawai’ians, which made it extremely attractive to a fantasy writer (that would be me). I also wanted to visit my friend in Captain Cook on the Big Island, because I hoped he would introduce me to some local people who could tell me about myths and legends. I changed all the reservations, abandoning the idea of speaking to the academic experts in Oahu.

At this point in my journey, I didn’t have a story. I knew i would be using my protagonist Sierra, and probably her friend, Coyotl the Trickster, but there were several other characters involved, and I wasn’t sure how I would be using them: Clancy, Rose, Mama Labadie—and especially Fred.

So my husband Tom and I jetted off to the Big Island. My friend was not available to meet for a few days, so Tom and I found ways to entertain ourselves—snorkeling, sampling the local goods like honey and macadamia nuts and coffee. We tried the local Captain Cook grocery store for wine, but the selection was unappealing, so we made a trip to Costco in Kona. While standing in line, I noticed an enormous refrigerator nearby, full of leis. I have always wanted a maile leaf lei. They are made as garlands rather than necklaces, and they often use only the pleasantly vanilla-scented leaves, not flowers. Sure enough Costco had them, and I took my prize back to Captain Cook. 

I wore the lei the next day on a visit to Volcano National Park. Kilawea, Pele’s home volcano, was erupting, so I decided to sacrifice my lei to Pele, Goddess of Fire, and ask for her blessing on my work (which I hadn’t started because no story yet). To my disappointment, they wouldn’t let us anywhere near the actual flowing lava, but we were able to approach the rim of the caldera. It was clear this was the right place because there were other offering leis hanging in a tiny tree next to the railing, as well as on the railing itself. I held up my lei, asked for Pele’s blessing and whanged it right into the little tree, where it was securely caught in the branches. Then we turned around and started to walk away, but I wanted a photo of my lei hanging in the tree, so we went back after only a few steps. 

Flinging my maile lei into the tree at the rim of the Kilawea cauldera.

My lei had vanished. All the other leis were still there. It was absolutely still without a breath of wind. We looked all around the ground under the tree. No maile leaf lei to be seen. With that incident, the story began to take shape in my head, with Pele taking an important role. 

When I started thinking about “Lords of the Night” (I didn’t have a title at this point, by the way), I decided to write a historical fantasy—even though my characters were 21st century people. Why? I think it was the challenge. And I wanted to learn more about the ancient Maya. My mother helped to excavate several Mayan ruins in Yucatan and Guatemala, back when most of those great cities were still covered in jungle, and there were no roads to the excavation sites. So in addition to reading intensively about the Maya, their history, arts, mathematics, science, and culture, I set up a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. (Actually, Tom does all the actual trip planning, based on what I want to see. He is wonderful that way!)

The ruins of a palace at Calakmul

I was blissfully untroubled by the problem of getting my 21st century characters back to the 5th century. This is fantasy! I can just make it up! As a writer, I adore that freedom. Why do you think I don’t write science fiction?

I also cleverly invited a couple to go along with us. Clod, the male half of the couple, was born and lived as a young person in Mexico City, with vacations in the Yucatan, which is where his father was raised. Linda studied Spanish in school. I speak Spanish like a first-year student with a strangely good accent (thanks to my Spanish-speaking mother). Tom has never studied Spanish. See how I did that?

The story began to take shape for me when we visited the ruins of Calakmul, which lie within the borders of a large biological reserve on the Guatemalan border. Calakmul had been my primary destination, though we did visit Tulum, Uxmal, and a few other archeological sites. I don’t know why Calakmul drew me so strongly. My mother didn’t excavate there, and I had never heard of it before beginning research for this trip. I had seen photos, and the city has a temple that rivals Egypt’s Great Pyramid for size. Plus, it is located in the middle of a jungle, far from the well-trod tourist trails. Intriguing, no?

There is only one hotel within the borders of the biological reserve. If you want to visit Calakmul, you more or less have to stay at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, because the hotel, deep in the jungle, is still 60 kilometers or so from the ruins, along an unpaved road. When you get to the drop-off place for the ruins, you still have to walk a kilometer to arrive at the actual city. 

At the base of one of the temples in Calakmul.

All of which made my visit to Calakmul everything I could have hoped for. As we walked along, I picked our guide’s brain about Mayan folk tales and we saw peacock-gorgeous oscillated turkeys, and monkeys, and javelinas. The ruins themselves were pleasantly shaded, with very few other people around. It was nothing like the wait-in-line-in-the-tropical-sun-with-a-million-other-tourists experience of the more popular sites. The temples, all of which have not yet been excavated, are impressive. In its time, Calakmul was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient Mayan world, and its name was Ox Té Tuun. Ox Té Tuun is central to “Lords of the Night,” and as I strolled along its broad avenues I developed the character of Ix Mol, a young Mayan girl from Ox Té Tuun with a very big problem who enlivens the pages of “Lords of the Night.”

More Calakmul.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that place is central to my process as a writer. I have no idea why, but there’s nothing like a good trip to someplace far, far away to stimulate my creative juices.

That’s what I tell my husband, anyway.

I Finally Climaxed

Sorry—that may have been a bit misleading. I mean that I finished the third book in my “Gods of the New World” trilogy. And it took a long time to get here. But you don’t want to hear all that—you want to know all about “Lords of the Night,” the final book? Right?

In “Lords of the Night,” Sierra and Chaco travel back in time to rescue Clancy from 6th Century Yucatan. (Spoiler Alert: Clancy didn’t die in the boiling ocean in “Fire in the Ocean” after all. Okay, I did consider letting him die in Moloka‘i. But Clancy was there at the beginning of this adventure in “The Obsidian Mirror.” After all this time, I really wanted him to be there at the end.)

 Sierra and Chaco discover that Clancy was saved from death by boiling, but is now lost in the distant past, somewhere in the huge expanse of the ancient Yucatan jungle. 

In the process of trying to locate Clancy, they encounter a young Mayan girl, Ix Mol, who has an agenda of her own. Ix Mol knows how to find Clancy, but it involves walking the White Road all the way to the great city of Ox Té Tuun, hundreds of miles away.

They arrive just in time to see Clancy sacrificed at the Temple of Chaak. 

Well, being dead didn’t stop Clancy before. But the real excitement is where Sierra and Chaco wind up. Clancy and Ix Mol also have surprise endings to their sagas.

And Fred? Well, if you want to know the role that Fred plays in this story, you’ll just have to read it.

I can say no more. But I can guarantee a satisfying climax to Sierra’s story. To read the first chapter:

Sorry—that may have been a bit misleading. I mean that I finished the third book in my “Gods of the New World” trilogy. And it took a long time to get here. But you don’t want to hear all that—you want to know all about “Lords of the Night,” the final book? Right?

In “Lords of the Night,” Sierra and Chaco travel back in time to rescue Clancy from 6th Century Yucatan. (Spoiler Alert: Clancy didn’t die in the boiling ocean in “Fire in the Ocean” after all. Okay, I did consider letting him die in Moloka‘i. But Clancy was there at the beginning of this adventure in “The Obsidian Mirror.” After all this time, I really wanted him to be there at the end.)

 Sierra and Chaco discover that Clancy was saved from death by boiling, but is now lost in the distant past, somewhere in the huge expanse of the ancient Yucatan jungle. 

In the process of trying to locate Clancy, they encounter a young Mayan girl, Ix Mol, who has an agenda of her own. Ix Mol knows how to find Clancy, but it involves walking the White Road all the way to the great city of Ox Té Tuun, hundreds of miles away.

They arrive just in time to see Clancy sacrificed at the Temple of Chaak. 

Well, being dead didn’t stop Clancy before. But the real excitement is where Sierra and Chaco wind up. Clancy and Ix Mol also have surprise endings to their sagas.

And Fred? Well, if you want to know the role that Fred plays in this story, you’ll just have to read it.

I can say no more. But I can guarantee a satisfying climax to Sierra’s story.

To read the first chapter of “Lords of the Night”: https://wordpress.com/page/theobsidianmirror.net/39

To purchase “Lords of the Night” on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3sZtqkY

Cover Reveal: Lords of the Night

I couldn’t have done this without the help of several people who took the time and trouble to offer me advice. I was also smart enough to ask my artistic daughter, Kerry Gil, who has formal training in graphic arts, for feedback.

I am super pleased with the resulting cover. I probably went through eight different iterations before getting to this one. I didn’t post all of them, but I got wonderful feedback from my friends online as well as family. I suppose I have had more difficult creative challenges, but mimicking someone else’s style in a field in which my competence is minimal is one of the tougher goals I have set myself.

In particular, I am pleased that everything fits the ancient Mayan theme of the book–ocean, snakes, temple, palm fronds, Spirit Snake amulet, coyote (Chaco!). The birds flying around the temple refer to a climactic scene in the book (although it’s not the only climax, I assure you).

I hope you like the cover. I will be back soon to announce the publication of “Lords of the Night,” the final (and climactic) ending to “The Gods of the New World” trilogy.

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.

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Lingchi, or the death of a thousand cuts, was a form of torturous execution practiced in China and Vietnam until the early 20th Century. Without going into too much gruesome detail, this involved cutting small pieces of a person’s body off until they died from blood loss, shock, or systemic failure. The idea was to inflict the maximum amount of pain, anticipation of death, and humiliation upon the victim.

Every woman in America knows the death by a thousand cuts. It starts when we are little kids, and as we get a little older, it only gets worse. Let me offer some examples from my own life. I am not using my experience because I want your sympathy. I want you to remember when this sort of stuff happened to you, your friend, your mother, your aunt, your sister, your classmate. And I want you to be furious and stay that way.

As a child, my father’s worst insult was to call me “girlish.” Being girlish was the worst thing you could be, that was clear, but I was at a loss as how not to be girlish, being a girl and all.

As a girl, I wanted to be an archeologist. My father talked my mother, who was a former archeologist, into telling me that female archeologists never got married. I pointed out that she had, and so had Margaret Meade—five times—but this was ignored. Nonetheless, I was told I could “be whatever I wanted to be.” Puzzling.

As a child of perhaps nine, my friend and I were pursued down the street by older boys demanding a “blow job.” Neither of us knew what that was, but we were pretty sure it was something we needed to flee from—quickly. I learned as a child to avoid groups of adolescent boys or young men when I was walking because of the filthy comments they made. Again, I didn’t understand most of them, but they conveyed a slimy contempt that frightened me.

As a seventh-grader, I was harassed on the school bus by a boy in my grade. When I turned to ask him to stop, he slapped me as hard as he could across the face before I could even speak. I wish I had been more of a fighter as a girl, but I was raised to be sugar and spice and everything nice and I had no idea how to retaliate without getting badly beaten. I turned around and said nothing and repressed my tears. I heard one of the boys behind me say, “Well, at least she didn’t cry.” When my father called his father, the boy’s father basically said suck it.

When I developed secondary sexual characteristics, of course it got much worse. I became adept at spotting and avoiding trouble by being alert for predatory males all the time. Once I was walking through a park in the afternoon and a car driven by a solitary man began following me. He followed me everywhere until I approached a family of picnickers and asked if I could sit with them until the man left. They kindly allowed me to stay and the stalker took off, but it frightened me.

The very next morning, my younger sister and I went for a walk before my parents got up. We were visiting Monterey, CA, and it was foggy. We wandered down to the wharf, not far away, and walked out to the end of the dock. On the way back, we were approached by two transients, toothless, filthy, dressed in dirty rags, who told us to go with them and have some “fun.” It was two men against two young girls (one just a child), and they were very threatening. No one else was around, and the thick fog obscured everything. I put my arm around my sister and began yelling, “NO!” They finally gave way and let us go, but that was the scariest moment of my young life.

In college, I was groped multiple times at dances by men who were just walking past, as though I were a fruit display. Casually done, as if it were their right to touch me in such a way. One man who shall remain nameless as he isn’t up for a Supreme Court judgeship, tried to rape me when he thought I was unconscious. Just napping, as it turned out, but I never trusted him again.

I remember the first time I realized that men did not have my back—even men who weren’t doing anything objectionable. I was waiting in line in a liquor store. The guy in front of me was enormous. I am nearly six feet tall, but this man dwarfed me. After he paid for his purchase, he whirled around abruptly, glowered at me and said, “You wanna go out?” Startled and a bit frightened, I stammered, “No!” He turned away and left the store. I definitely felt threatened and I was worried that he might be waiting for me outside. I looked at the men in line with me (there were no women). I looked at the checkout clerk, also a man. Their eyes were blankly unconcerned. I realized that I was completely on my own. No one was going to offer to walk outside with me to make sure I got to my car safely. I waited quite a while inside the store, peering out to see if I could spot this giant man, before I dared to leave the shelter of the store.

Much later, when I was in business, I ran into men who refused to work with women, and were fairly rude about it. One man, who probably weighed over 300 pounds, made a joking remark about my being overweight in a room filled with men who laughed at his clever joke. In another testosterone-infused business meeting, a man began loudly talking and sharing jokes during my female colleague’s presentation. He was not reprimanded by the male vice president who was running the meeting.

I can’t even tell you about all the times I’ve been catcalled, or ignored, or talked over, or had my ideas repeated by a man to general acclaim—minutes after I had suggested them and been ignored.

I’ve been followed. I’ve been stalked. I’ve had perfect strangers (men) feel free to comment on my attributes or lack of them. I’ve been called bitch, cunt, whore, and slut by people who have never met me before.

I’m not telling you this because my experience is so awful. I’ve never been raped, for instance, or physically abused by a man. No, I’m telling you because EVERY WOMAN IN AMERICA SHARES THESE EXPERIENCES WITH ME. Every. Last. One.

This is the death of a thousand cuts: every day, women and young girls face the lust, scorn, disgust, hatred, indifference, and ridicule of men. After a few decades, it feels very old indeed. The good news is, if you become fat or in any way deemed unattractive, such as getting gray hair or saggy tits, it all goes away! No one catcalls, stalks, or gropes you anymore because now you are COMPLETELY INVISIBLE! No one hears you, no one sees you. It’s better than the catcalling and groping, which should tell you something.

Obviously, I am not talking to or about the good men, of whom there are many. But sadly, because these men are good, they think that these criticisms are aimed at all men. Some get very defensive, “I don’t do those things!” and refuse to hear about it. We need these good men on our side, not defending themselves against us. Women know that “not all men.” So don’t get defensive on us when we’re asking for your support. Don’t tell us that not all men. Show us that not all men.

Thanks.

Book Review: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline


Are you a gamer? Did you play video games obsessively as a teenager, and still sneak in a few games now and then? Are you conversant with pop culture in the 1980s and can name all the characters from “Family Ties”?

Even if you aren’t, you will probably enjoy “Ready Player One.” I can’t remember anything about the 1980s because I was raising small children and starting and running a company—and I still enjoyed it. Our hero is a teenaged boy named Wade. Wade’s life sucks. He lives in a not-too-distant dystopian future with his aunt because his parents are dead. They live with several other people in a house trailer on the top rack of “the stacks.” People have moved to the city hoping to find jobs and food, and space is at a premium. So house trailers are piled one on top of the other in racks that can be many trailers deep, like a rickety multi-story apartment building. Wade’s aunt takes his food rations and gives him nothing, so he has learned to scrounge and deal and make his own way in the world.

Wade’s great obsession in life is the Oasis. The Oasis is a massively complex, totally immersive artificial reality environment reminiscent of Second Life, but eons beyond. Playing is free, but users must have equipment to access the Oasis and create game avatars. All the things an avatar might use, such as magical objects or weapons, cost actual money, as does transportation within the Oasis. Half of humanity spends a significant percentage of their lives in the Oasis because reality has become so unpleasant.

Wade can access the Oasis because he has haptic gloves and a controller through the free school he attends within the Oasis. But he can’t explore the Oasis much because he can’t pay for magical tools and technology (both work within the Oasis) or pay for transportation, so his avatar has only made it to Level Three. This is a huge problem for Wade, because he wants to find the Easter Egg, which requires serious player chops.

The Easter Egg was the brainchild of the Oasis’ original creator, James Halliday. When Halliday died, his will specified that whoever won the treasure hunt he had set up within the Oasis would inherit the Oasis and his multi-multi-billion-dollar estate. Although it has been years since Halliday died, no one has yet found even the first key. Wade, like hundreds of thousands of other “gunters” (egg-hunters), desperately wants to find the egg and win the game. The trouble is, so does IOI Corporation, which has recruited hundreds of people to look for the egg and equipped their avatars with the top-of-the-line haptic equipment, tanks, guns, magic, etc., etc. far beyond the means of a mere gunter.

Wade has spent his entire life studying James Halliday and his obsession with 1980s video games and pop culture. He finally figures out where the first key can be found—and also figures out how to wangle free transportation to the location. He finds and uses the first key, and his life morphs out of all recognition. IOI makes him a generous offer to come work for them. But if Wade finds the Easter Egg, IOI gets the goodies, and Wade knows IOI will make the Oasis into a pay-for-play experience, so he refuses. IOI immediately detonates a bomb, blowing up the stacks where Wade’s aunt lives, killing her and many other people. Wade, who wasn’t home at the time, now has funds gained from solving the first puzzle, so he assumes a false identity and goes underground.

So the game-within-a-game has suddenly become literal mortal combat. Aided by the few friends he possesses, Aech, Art3mis, Shoto and Daito (none of whom he has met in reality), Wade continues the quest.

Wade’s encyclopedic knowledge of old video games and the 1980s assists him through the challenge until it comes to the third and final key. By this time, IOI employee avatars are ahead of him in the game. IOI hit men are searching for him and his friends in the real world. Wade sets up a sting operation. If it works, he and his friends have a good chance of making it to the egg. If it fails, he becomes a lifelong slave of IOI Corporation.

Cline has created a complex world, both within the Oasis and in the real world. It probably adds to your enjoyment if you are familiar with the video games that are mentioned in the story, but even without that knowledge, it’s a tightly plotted and well-paced tale. Also—and this is important—it’s a fun story. Great drama has its place. Tragedy has its place. Interpersonal relationships and their tangled webs have their place. But fun stories are important too, and I found my real-world burdens and anxieties dropping away as I followed Wade and his friends through their half-real, half-simulated adventures. I highly recommend “Ready Player One” as a respite—an Oasis if you will—from the all-too-angst-producing reality of our own world.

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.

Death Comes for Zippy

This isn’t Zippy, but it looks just like her. (Not that I can tell one Barred Rock hen from another.) I love her smart stripes and contrasting red comb–very stylish.

About a year ago I wrote a blog piece about “bathroom chickens.” My daughter Kerry decided she wanted to keep chickens for the eggs. She and her husband Mike built a sturdy chicken run and coop, capable of deflecting the local predators, which include foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rats, weasels, raccoons, hawks, and eagles. We are less certain the coop would resist the dedicated efforts of the local mountain lion, but so far, the lion has stayed on the other side of our fence.

Kerry obtained five chicks from our local organic farmer guru. These tiny, shrieking balls of fluff lived in the upstairs bathroom. As they grew larger, they became more difficult to care for. Also more annoying. I got tired of cleaning up chicken-foot-shaped shit prints. But the day dawned when our little flock moved into their new chicken palace in the back yard. In due time, they began laying eggs. We had two Easter Eggers that laid green, speckled eggs. The rest, a Barred Rock, an Australorpe, and a Rhode Island Red, laid brown eggs.

We named the chickens. I have a rule that I never eat anything that I have addressed by name. The Easter Eggers, both brownish-red, were named Henrietta and Ruby. The Australorpe, whose feathers are iridescent black, is Chix. The Rhode Island Red, a cheerful yellow, is Sunny. The Barred Rock, stylish in black and white stripes, was named Zippy.

I thought I would become more emotionally attached to the chickens. I love animals, and have had pets from cats to rats to a horse to seahorses. I wept over the deaths of my pet rats as much as over any dog or cat. But I haven’t gotten very attached to the chickens. They aren’t terribly fond of us, either. You would think that being handled every day as chicks, they would be used to us, but no. Clearly, they view us as annoying and intrusive at best—unless we have food, in which case, they prefer us to throw it in the coop and leave as quickly as possible.

I did develop a grudge against one of them, though. Chix proved to be the smartest and most aggressive of the young hens. The other girls huddled away from us when we entered the coop, but Chix came right up and crowded us. One day as I was putting fresh food down (this was before I learned to fling it and leave), Chix pecked both my wrists with lightening speed, raising two juicy blood blisters. I decided I would probably be okay with eating Chix cacciatore after all.

We originally thought Henrietta would be, as Kerry put it, “The boss bitch.” She was the largest of the baby chicks, and the most forward. Then Chix stepped up and flexed her drumsticks. But the one who ruled the roost in the end was Zippy, our Barred Rock. I think Zippy was, in her own way, an ideal leader. She was modest and unassuming, asserting her authority without pecking anyone’s eyes out or raising any blood blisters. While Chix continued to crowd us in the coop, perching on the watering bottles and knocking them over, dapper Zippy quietly went about her business, keeping her little flock on track. After Zippy assumed supremacy, we noticed that Chix wasn’t as aggressive as she had been. Which was a good thing.

As the hens grew older, the eggs got bigger and more plentiful. Once in a while we find no eggs, but usually there are three, four or five eggs waiting for us. I enjoy getting the eggs, sometimes needing to grope under a warm, sitting hen to find them. I always thought they would lay their eggs in separate nests, but all of the eggs go in one nest, and they take turns sitting on them. Sunny is our most dedicated sitter. She never pecks at my thieving fingers and even lets me pet her. (If she’s not on the nest, however, Sunny won’t let us near her.) If Chix is sitting (a rare occasion because Chix isn’t the motherly type), I shoo her away before gathering the eggs. I’m not giving that bitch another shot at me.

I enjoy their “egg song.” When a hen lays, she crows a bit as though to say, “Look what I just did!” I also quietly savor the idea that the descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex are strutting around in my back yard, providing me with sustenance. Mammals rule, and all that.

Then tragedy struck. Kerry found Zippy’s still-warm corpse in the run without a mark on her. Zippy had laid an egg the day before, and she had also happily gobbled the table scraps I gave them. Although she was only a year old, Zippy’s sands had run out. The Queen was dead. The rest of the flock retreated in horror to the highest perch until the corpse was removed.

I had a rather odd reaction to Zippy’s death. As I said, we weren’t close. But it seemed sad that such a young bird had died. None of the other birds appear ill. Kerry’s research indicated that it wasn’t unusual for a youthful chicken to die unexpectedly, possibly of a heart attack. Just like people, some chickens are born with defective hearts. Still. She had shared my table (figuratively speaking). She was a creature under my care. I wasn’t grief-stricken, but I did feel that Zippy deserved some respect for her wise leadership and lovely brown eggs. So Zippy has been on my mind for a few days.

But not on my plate. As I said, we were on first-name terms.

Today, I Marched for Our Lives

The two sides of my waterproof sign.

I live in a tiny town on the Central Coast of California. Usually, protest marches are organized in Santa Cruz, marching through the downtown shopping district. Santa Cruz is pretty flaming liberal, and the community is usually enthusiastic and supportive of protests. But this time the March for Our Lives was cancelled—I don’t know why. So other people picked up the slack and organized a march through our tiny town.

I had purchased foam board for my sign. I tried to find clever sign suggestions for this march, but I have to say I was disappointed by the general blandness of the offerings, so I came up with my own. It was supposed to be pouring rain, and I couldn’t see slogging through the rain with a huge, double-sided sign that was running ink, so I came up with a rain-proof plan. I printed my signs out on 8×10 paper and slid them into a plastic sheet protector with a piece of cardboard to stiffen it. Then I taped the opening closed—voila! A waterproof sign, not as large as I usually carry, but clearly readable. (It did not rain, by the way.)

My husband Tom volunteered to go with me. I donned my trusty pussy hat (which I now view as an all-purpose protest symbol, and thanks again, Bernardita, for knitting it for me). We set off for the park where we were to gather, arriving at 9:00 am. I was astounded—there were hundreds of people, many with their kids. I’m no good at estimating crowd size, but I would say easily 1500 people turned out in my little town. Many had signs, many wore pussy hats. It was a peaceful, cheerful assembly of people who care deeply about the safety of children in their schools. Not to mention the safety of citizens in public spaces. I think everyone there was aware of the (hopefully remote) possibility that some gun nut would decide that this was his big moment. Thankfully, nothing of the sort occurred, at least not here.

We marched through the teensy downtown area for perhaps thee-quarters of a mile to a bridge over the freeway. People going by in cars mostly honked enthusiastically and gave the thumbs-up. A couple of people gave us a thumbs-down, and one person yelled, “Guns for everyone!” But by far, the majority of passing drivers were supportive. At the bridge, we waited for a while and waved our signs at the traffic, then turned around and marched back to the park entrance. On the way back, the line of marchers heading toward the bridge was about as long as the line of marchers heading back, and we set up a cool call-and-response on different sides of the main street:

“Enough is enough!”

“Never again!”

I found myself close to tears as we marched. My grandchildren go to school in this town. I fear for them every day. That’s just wrong. We should be able to send our children to school secure in the knowledge that no insane, violent extremist is going to murder them in their classrooms.

They are too precious to me. Not just my grandchildren–all of them. Now is the time. Now.