Interview with Oliver Chase, Author of “Camelot Games”

I occasionally review books and interview other authors on this blog. Here, I interview Oliver Chase, who recently published a political thriller, “Camelot Games.” Given the current political situation, I thought “Camelot Games” was incredibly insightful, as well as a great, fast-paced read.

In the interest of full disclosure, Oliver Chase belongs to a very exclusive group of which I am also a member—authors who were formerly published by AEC Stellar Publishing. AEC Stellar, once presided over by publisher Ray Vogel, featured a number of new authors that Ray took under his wing. The pressures of his “day job” and the need to give more time to his family forced Ray to give up his dream, and our little group of diverse authors was scattered to the wind. I think we all still have a collegial feeling for one another—I know I do. I’ll always be grateful to Ray for publishing my first novel and launching me into my lifelong dream of being a published novelist.

KD:                  In “Camelot Games,” you’ve written a fast-paced political thriller, complete with back-room skullduggery, betrayal, misdirection, an attack on the nation’s infrastructure, and an attempt at secession. When you wrote this book, was there something in the political atmosphere of the time that inspired you? Or was it something else?

Oliver:                   What a fun question. Several years ago as I waited for the editor to return one of my novels, I read about the 2003 Northeast blackout. As catastrophes go, only a small part of America and Canada were affected. If you were there, it was awful. If not, the whole affair was someone else’s problem.

The financial losses impacted millions of people. Elevators stuck between floors. The NE corridor’s trains stopped on their tracks. Fire departments and first responders worked for days to help people only to find many could not hold on.

I read about the computer glitch, a bug that kept an alarm and a notification at bay until it was too late. The bug was not intentional, but what would happen if it was?

What would happen if a kingmaker decided his little pond was not big enough, or that he wanted to be more than just a footnote in the history books. Why not use a handsome front man and a lovely ambitious wife at a time when an unhappy nation had grown distrustful of its leadership and clamored for a savior.

Scott and Angie McHale waited in the wings, poised to save a nation, a gentle guiding hand for the ages, and born from the ashes.

K.D.:                Are you surprised by how many elements of your novel came to the fore in recent politics, such as the Calexit movement?

Oliver:                   “Camelot Games” came about in two starts. When a jury convicted a wife killer in San Francisco, I was amazed at the man’s steadfast denial in the face of overwhelming, though circumstantial evidence. I read his testimony and wondered if he could hear himself. Where was his attorney? I haven’t an opinion if the killer sitting on death row today is justified. Or, if the real killer still runs among us. But, I note the man’s refusal to concede or ask forgiveness is pretty unique.

The second story that brought both halves of the novel together involved an early agent provocateur railing against the haughtiness of industrialists who believe their own press. He pointed out they paraded naked, and refuse to listen. Such egotistical ham-handedness of the less powerful might cause temporary pain for citizens, but to do such a thing on a national scale, could prove disastrous.

Hence, “Camelot Games.”

K.D.:                This story required a thorough knowledge not just of politics, but of military protocol and procedure and law enforcement. Do you have a background in these fields?

Oliver:            I’m hardly apolitical, either in my personal beliefs or my actions. The story however does not identify one party or the other. I’ve scrubbed my convictions clean of the characters and let each either damn or exonerate themselves without regard to a modern political party, organized religious principle, or ethnic background. The book does take place in America, takes a swipe or two at other countries, but pits people and not organizations against one another.

BTW, people suggesting the secession of states, cities and communities has been around since the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. No one is ever completely happy, even in America. We’re just not wired that way.

K.D.:                Your protagonist, Scott McHale, is a strong character, though flawed. Unusually for your genre, his wife Angie is also a strong character and she plays a significant role in your story. Did you start out intending to have a strong husband-and-wife team, or did it just work out that way?

Oliver:            I’m a staunch proponent of partnerships. I’d like to think stalwart individuals forged civilization from the Stone Age, but that didn’t happen. Partners happened. Sometimes a community forms an enterprise, sometimes its two people. Like in a marriage. My personal experience finds love a terrific motivator and the glue when the going gets tough. Respect, belief, vision, dedication are important and have their place in partnerships, too.

Does anyone ever wonder why a love-interest in a book appeals to readers? Rocky or rock-solid, I think we innately recognize we humans do better when burdens and happiness are shared.

K.D.:                Did you have any trouble writing the female characters? Is Angie based on any real person or persons? Is Big Jim based on a real person, or is he an amalgam of shadowy kingmaker-types?

Oliver:                  Trouble writing female characters? Hmm. I suppose the reader will have to tell me if I missed the mark with the females in Camelot Games. Obviously, the book centers around strong women. Several are not just important, but are vital to move the story along. Each possesses a unique voice, philosophy, and view of the story. Each will reveal themselves by their actions and their words. I’d have to admit one or two were easier than others. All the females are fictional. Some I’ve known in my imagination, some I wanted to know. Some I hope, I’ll never to have to meet.

K.D.:                What were the aspects of the plot that gave you the most trouble? How did you work past it?

Oliver:            Since we first started telling tales around campfires in caves of animal drawings, we the storytellers tried to capture the imaginations of our audiences. A plot must be in mind when we begin the story, the stronger and more solid, the better. Otherwise, we’ll lose the reader, shaggy dog stories notwithstanding.

The plot of “Camelot Games” makes clear the book is not a techno thriller. The general pleasure reader likely has little desire to be wowed by my grasp of technology, aerodynamics, or frankly, the inner workings of senatorial subcommittees. What I hope the reader will see is that unbridled ambition by any name changes the dynamics of our most important relationships. Whether it’s marital love, dedication to country, or a lawmaker’s connection to those who elect him, aspirations left unchecked have a way of eating us from within.

K.D.:                Did you have to do a lot of research for this, or were you already very familiar with what you were writing?

Oliver:            Research is always a tricky, little devil. As I spent time piecing together the elements of the book, I read and researched quite a bit that never made its way into my pages. For instance, Scott McHale sat on several subcommittees, at least two of which had a direct bearing on nuclear energy. In order to make sense of the mysterious buildings that suddenly began populating western United States, someone had to clear the way. Be he willing or unwilling, the task needed to be completed. Not much of my self-education on legislative process appeared in the book. If however, a teacher or even a congressman in the know happens to read “Camelot Games,” I needed to make the process of approvals and financing believable.

As a side note, one of my tools was to have been the now illegal “ear marking.” When that went by the boards, I need to go back to my studies and find another way to fulfill Scott’s mandate. When we use a story-vehicle, authors must insure there’s air in the tires. Otherwise, the story will go flat, too.

K.D.:                Which writers have been your primary influences?

Oliver:            Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Leon Uris caught my attention and imagination early in my life. They encouraged me to seek out the more difficult writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck. I’m pretty conventional, I know, and I’ve never grown too far from that apple tree. Today, I like Craig Johnson, Helen Wecker, John Sanford, Stephanie Meyer, and Karen White. I find myself listening to as many books as I read, but still look forward to that twenty-minute sweet spot, under the bedroom lamp, just before I fade to sleep.

K.D.:                Will you be using the Scott and Angie McHale characters in a sequel? If so, when will the book be available?

Oliver:            I had not thought about Scott and Angie in a sequel. To tell the truth, I’m so busy with my noir crime series, I hadn’t considered it. But thanks for the question. I’ll have fun toying with the idea.

K.D.:                You made it clear in “Camelot Games” that America’s electrical grid is vulnerable to attack from within. Do you also see it as vulnerable to attack from abroad? What should be done about that? 

Oliver:            America’s vulnerability to an attack on the electrical grid is a scary reality. In the last few years, more and more is written about how we should be protecting ourselves. Like anything else in government, unless the priority rises to a level where one’s votes are in jeopardy, I doubt any legislator will lean too far forward. The loss of power for even a short time will be catastrophic.

A year after “Camelot Games” went to the publisher’s dark hole, I happened across “One Second After” by John Matherson. Newt Gingrich didn’t write my preface, but he did Matherson’s, and what he said, and believes, is downright scary. Perhaps different stories, but the same frightening result.

Before I say adieu, please allow me to make a shameless, self-serving pitch. Oliver Chase’s Take on Life contains a couple short stories, tiny vignettes about people I once knew and serves as a testing ground for my 2018 anthology. Interestingauthors.com is a place I go weekly to let off a little steam. A couple other authors do the same. I enjoy reading their stuff as much as writing my little bit.

By the way, Olivechase.net is a place to buy my books. If you’d like signed, paperback copies, and we can’t catch up with one another in a Barnes and Noble or Indie bookstore, drop me a note. We can try to work something out. I’d rather go in the red and have you read the book, than try to hold anyone up for a couple of bucks. Besides, I really enjoy readers and writers so please don’t be shy. I’m not that hard to find.

Oliver Chase Biography

Oliver Chase, author of “Camelot Games”

Oliver grew up on military bases throughout the country and like all boys, played good guys and bad. Coaxing him into an afternoon of baseball along Lake Erie, hiking the Southern California’s hills or paddling a canoe in the North Carolina backwater didn’t take much unless a book found him first.

His best friend and he joined the Marines and took a deferment to attend college. Herb left school finding stumbling blocks that seemed insurmountable at the time. A year after graduating, Oliver stepped onto a sweaty tarmac with a manual Smith Corona typewriter not far from where Herb had died. Fate usually finds a way of putting day-to-day frustrations into a cruel perspective, especially when lost in the haze of an ugly war.

Thirty-one young men flew days and nights in the mountains trying to keep the world safe for … well, says Oliver, that’s not really true, is it? The only reason we ever went into those dark, frightening places was to save our friends, most of whom we’d never met, and never would. That they lived however, meant others died and that still haunts to this day.

He spent time wandering after he got home. Lots of young veterans did, some on foot, some on the rails. Many like Oliver make stops along the road life gave him. He never slept in the park or a bus station, although many did. Most eventually found a way out of the maze from that crazy period of time, yet too many others did not. Oliver promised he was never truly at risk, but still believes pulling the right ticket is mostly a matter of circumstance and luck.

He did a bit of teaching on the Navajo reservation, spent a few years with the cops and a couple alphabet agencies and never quit writing. The old manual typewriter became a memory when his first computer came along. A Lenovo notebook travels with him now, the wanderlust never completely leaving him be. Today, he spends days on the family farm and occasionally still follows the season around when a bookstore bids welcome. Sometimes he wonders if the old Smith Corona found a home, too. He hopes so, wishing his old friend happier days.

Oliver Chase Links

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Blog Post That Is Not about Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bathroom Chickens

Four years ago, my husband and I and our daughter’s family bought a house together and moved in. We had a nice big yard, and Kerry (our daughter) decided we should have backyard chickens.

I wasn’t opposed to having backyard chickens, as long as there were no roosters, and superannuated hens would be comfortably retired instead of popped in a stew pot. I did not grow up on a farm. I am unabashedly sentimental about animals. Yes, I know where my food comes from. No, I am not going to start killing my food unless the P45 administration sends us all back to the Stone Age and I somehow miraculously survive. And I most definitely will not kill something that has a name and has trusted me. (I hated the episode on the PBS reality show “Frontier House” where one of the dads shoots a pig named JoJo and makes his son watch—the son who had raised and loved the pig.)

There was a delay in the acquisition of actual chickens. Kerry bought a chicken coop (some assembly required), but she got pregnant almost immediately. The next three years were chicken-free. But the new baby inexorably became a toddler, and the toddler is rapidly becoming a little girl, so the topic of chickens resurfaced. Kerry and her eldest child went to a daylong seminar on raising backyard chickens and returned home with a box of five fluffy baby chicks of assorted breeds.

You have to keep chicks protected and warm, and in any case, we didn’t yet have a chicken coop. So they wound up in a plastic brooder in the upstairs bathroom, warmed by a heat lamp. The bottom of the brooder is covered with a layer of wood shavings that drift everywhere—the floor, the sink, counter top, the toilet, the guestroom carpet. My shoes.

So there we were with five baby chicks. They ate voraciously, pooped abundantly, and appeared to grow before our very eyes. A scant four weeks ago they were downy little peepers. Today they are half-grown, with their feathers grown in and nascent combs. The brooder is getting a tad crowded in my opinion, but they don’t seem to mind. They were christened Ruby, Chix, Zippy, Sunny, and Henrietta. Henrietta is my contribution to the naming. She is the largest, calmest and (Kerry swears) the most intelligent of the lot. Kerry says Henrietta is the Boss Bitch of the flock. I am desperately hoping that Henrietta doesn’t turn out to be Henry. But not to worry; Kerry has located a rooster rescue organization. Who knew?

Kerry, being a force of nature, soon had her husband Mike working on a larger chicken coop because it turned out the previously purchased poultry palace was too small for five birds. Neither Kerry nor Mike had any carpentry experience, but they were undeterred. Armed with a borrowed circular saw, they began construction. Their friends (the ones who owned the saw) pitched in, and within a few days, they had most of the coop constructed, painted and reinforced against predators. It isn’t quite finished yet, but looks very professional.

Good-looking coop, right?

Predators are a real threat in our neighborhood, at least to chickens, and cats and small dogs occasionally go missing as well. We have a fenced yard, which should keep out the coyotes, but it won’t keep out raccoons, weasels, gray foxes (gray foxes can climb and we have seen them in the yard), rats, bobcats, or mountain lions. Yes, mountain lions. There’s one that lives somewhere behind us. We know because a neighbor saw it early one morning, and another neighbor ran across a deer carcass the lion had killed.

Then spring break came along, and Kerry and family have departed for a week, leaving me home as chicken curator. Someone has to check on them at least three times a day. Despite the fact they see humans so frequently, the same thing happens every time. As I approach the bathroom door, it is quiet inside, but as soon as I touch the door, a chorus of anguished chirping starts up. When I enter the bathroom, the chirping becomes louder and more intense as all the chicks huddle into one corner.

Our chickens do not, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, “… look at us with dry eyes as though we were unimportant.” No. They look at me the way teenagers in a horror flick look at the chainsaw-wielding mass murderer who chases them around the haunted house they were stupid enough to explore. As I move them from their brooder to the bathtub, the chickens shriek and flap and run away. When I succeed in catching one of them, always holding it gently in two hands, the screaming is bloodcurdling. The captured one shrills to her companions that she is being murdered! MURDERED! And the others increase their despairing screeches until I have rounded up every one and carefully deposited them in the tub so I can clean up their current mess without panicky chickens running around the bathroom floor as I work.

They all crowd together in the brooder when I enter the bathroom.

I have to clean out the water dispenser every time. Once they got big enough, the chicks started perching on top of the dispenser, which would topple over, letting all the water drain out. Although I have found a way to prevent it from falling over (packing tape), the chicks pile shavings on top of the drinking area and the shavings wick away all the water. So every chick-check is accompanied by some form of cleaning and disposal of wet shavings, even if I don’t have to move them to the bathtub.

While they wait in the tub, the chickens poop. Everywhere. In huge quantities. Then they step in the poop and leave chicken-foot-shaped poop marks all over the tub. Once I set their living quarters to rights and restore the chickens to their brooder, I have to clean the tub. As I sluice water in the tub, the chicks loudly discuss their ghastly experience with each other. I recognize complaining when I hear it.

Kerry tells me they can finish the coop with one more day’s work. Of course, I will have to wait until the family returns home. I am breathless with anticipation.

 

Save

Save

Save

Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.

img_2308

This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.

Days 3 and 4: The Lost City in the Jungle

calakmul

 

We had a journey of about three hours from Laguna Bacalar to Calakmul, the Mayan city I had most wanted to see. But before we left the lake, I wanted to swim in Cenoté Azule. The Yucatán Peninsula has no running surface water–streams or rivers–but the subterranean water rises to the surface via cenotés, which are underground caves that form in the limestone that composes the peninsula. Back in the day, many of these cenotés were repositories of virgin sacrifices, weighted down with jade and probably high on something. Xebalba (sheh-bal-bah), the Mayan underworld or place of death, is under the water. It did not pay to be a virgin in those days–if it ever did.

Many cenotés are deep holes, filled with water, but hard to get to as the water is many yards below the ground’s surface, though open to the sky. Cenoté Azule is a “mature” cenoté, which means the water is now at the surface so it is easier to get into and out of. Cenoté Azul is inevitably described as having crystal clear, pure waters, and we were advised to bring snorkeling equipment to see the underwater sights.

Cenoté Azul has restrooms and a restaurant, and a few ricketty shade structures much enjoyed by termites. Linda and I got into the water, but crystal clear is not how we would describe it. It was quite murky from the mud being stirred up by people getting in and out. I swam out further than Linda, and the water did clear up, but beneath me, intensely black, deep water was all I could see. I swam back and got out. At least I had a chance to adjust my new snorkel mask in fresh water with no waves slapping me around. And I can say I swam in a cenoté, however briefly.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

We drove to the next large city, Chetumal, needing to pick up sundries and cash as the next leg of the trip was cash-only. Then on to the Calakmul Biological Reserve, deep in the jungle near the Belize border. We had reservations at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, which is deep inside the reserve. It is the only hotel in the reserve, but it is still a LONG way from the actual ruins. The hotel reminds me of the Adirondacks, or something similar. Everything is rustic, with natural logs and branches forming the supports of the buildings. There’s lots of screening, and the buildings are all palm-thatched. There is a surprisingly good restaurant here, a pool, and not much else. Everyone here came for the ruins or for the nature reserve, or both. There’s one group of bird-watching Brits who can always be seen, all wearing khaki and carrying huge binoculars.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

The jungle is not quite what I expected. There are some large trees, but not as many as I imagined. Mostly the trees are rather slender and of medium height. There is less dense undergrowth than I would have anticipated, and the place has more the feel of a young temperate forest—if it were not for the orchids and bromeliads clinging to the trees, plus the occasional monkey. I suppose this is because the Yucatán is a rather dry place–definitely not rainforest, with trees so tall that there is a complete ecosystem existing in the canopy. Mostly, there is no canopy in the jungle here.

The beds were comfy and although the mosquito netting didn’t seem necessary, we used it. I have been surprised at the lack of bugs. I knew this was the driest, coolest, least buggy time of year, but I still expected a LOT more bugs.

The next morning, we met our guide, Roberto. Roberto is a Mayan from Chiapas whose family moved here when they lost everything in a flood/mudslide. I immediately began to pick his brain.

I am particularly interested in a legendary people called aluxes (ah-LOOSH-es). They are similar to the Menehune of Hawaii and the leprechauns of Ireland in that they are small people, the size of children, and they are mischievous and curious. They are guardians of the forest. I saw them as being akin to Fred the Mannegishi, if you happen to have read “The Obsidian Mirror.” The aluxes go back at least to the time of the ancient Maya, and there are bas-relief sculptures of them from the ruins (but not the ones we were there to see.)

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Roberto said he didn’t know much about aluxes, but it turned out he knew quite a lot.

He said he saw one when he was young, but he was with several other boys. No one else saw the alux, but he said it looked like a child running in the forest, wearing a shirt and shorts with a woven hat with a pointed crown and a brim all around. None of his companions saw it. When he and his brother got lost in the forest, they believed it was aluxes leading them astray because they hadn’t asked permission to hunt. He told me that if you are hunting for food and make an offering to them to ask permission, they will leave you alone. If you are hunting to sell the meat or fail to ask for permission, they will trick you and get you lost in the forest.

I asked Roberto whether he knew of other forest spirits, and he told me about Juan de Monte. “Monte” is a Spanish word for forest, and Juan de Monte is another protective forest spirit with the added characteristic of shielding wounded animals and nursing them back to health. He told us a story about a man from his village who was a very good hunter. He shot deer to sell the meat. He was hunting one day and shot a deer, but the wounded animal escaped. He followed it and came to a stone hut. Inside the hut, he saw many wounded animals. A spirit of the forest appeared to him, Juan de Monte, and told him these were all the animals he had wounded but not killed. Juan de Monte was nursing them. He told the hunter he was not allowed to hunt again. The hunter returned home but he couldn’t speak. His family took him to a curandero, who helped him to regain his power of speech. The hunter went hunting again because it was his livelihood. In the forest, an enormous deer appeared, the largest he had ever seem, and he shot it. But the deer was unwounded. He shot at it several more times with no effect. He threw down his rifle and ran home. Later, he and his brother went back to get the rifle, but the man never hunted again. I don’t know how far back Juan del Monte goes, but I plan on researching it. (I found a Mayan legend later about the “King of the Forest,” a spirit who plays the same role as Juan de Monte. I believe they are probably the same.)

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Our first visit was to Calakmul, a city that was founded about 700 BC and abandoned around 1200 AD. From the hotel, it is reached by a 60-kilometer-long road with many potholes. In the Classical Maya period, Calakmul was the predominant force in southern Yucatán/northern Beliz and Guatamala. At its peak, it was home to 65,000 people. Archeologists have been excavating and restoring Calakmul for decades, but much is still unexplored. There are no cenotés in the area so they had a system of rainwater catchments and storage. Unsurprisingly, the primary god of this city (and all the Mayan cities of the Yucatán) was Chaak, the god of rain and lightening. The city was abandoned because of a severe drought and crop failures. They probably thought Chaak was trying to tell them something.

It was a very pleasant place to explore, with lots of shade. On the 1-kilometer walk to the ruins from the site entrance, we saw two spider monkeys– the first monkeys I have ever seen in the wild. We also saw oscillated turkeys, as gorgeous as peacocks, and pheasants.

Oscillated turkey.

Oscillated turkey.

Coming into the ruin feels almost as though you have discovered a lost city. There are very few other visitors there, and you can walk around alone hearing only the sounds of the leaves in the breeze or perhaps howler monkeys booming in the distance. The ruins are impressive, and you can see how the building and stone-carving techniques evolved from the older to newer buildings. There are many limestone stele, but they are so eroded that most of them resemble rotten teeth more than bas-relief sculptures. Two large stele still show the remains of a king on the right side and a queen on the left. You can just make out the faces and bodies. The queen faces right toward her husband, and the king faces left. Their feet are portrayed with left foot pointing left and right foot pointing right, knees bent, giving them the appearance of being bow-legged.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

Most of the overgrowth has been removed from the excavated buildings, but strangler figs still grow on them in places, roots flowing over the stone steps like melted wax. Roberto was very informative about the animals and flora, happily pointing out the poisonous trees (chechem) and the trees (chaka) that cure the itchy rash caused by the chechem, as well as the orchids and bromiliads that have hitched a ride on many trees. The chaca tree is also called by some “la tourista” because it has a red, peeling skin–like so many Norte Americanos who come here and expose their pale skin to too much tropical sun.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

There were many round stone altars associated with the stele. They were heavily eroded, but it was still easy to see they are nothing like the post-classic Mayan altar shaped like a human being, usually on its back (chak-mool). The Classical Maya of the Yucatán did not practice much human sacrifice. They did practice blood sacrifice, however. The royalty was expected to let their own blood, obtained by perforating lips, tongue, earlobes or genitals with a stingray spine, cactus thorns or thorny vines. I’m not talking about making a modest cut or incision, either–there is plenty of graphic evidence that they thrust the object all the way through their flesh to the other side. The blood was collected in a bowl and burned. This was the duty of royalty to assure the gods were properly worshiped. Animal sacrifice and the burning of food like maize was also practiced. Although some cities sacrificed the captain of the winning ball team, Calakmul doesn’t have a ball court­—at least none that has yet been found. More about the ball game later.

Maize was the principle crop, but they also grew beans and squash. The Maya cultivated cotton, at least in some places. The standard garb was a simple white cotton garment for men and women. Priests, warriors and elites added elaborate headdresses of feathers, jade jewelry, animal skins (the jaguar being especially significant and powerful) and other ornaments. Those heavy-looking headdresses you see in Maya murals and bas-relief sculptures? Those are highly stylized feathers.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

The temples and palaces were originally covered with stucco and painted. These important buildings were oriented to the four cardinal directions. Little remains of the stucco or paint, but it is likely that each side was painted with the color associated with that direction. The only pigment remaining that I could see was red. Mayan cities, which were cleared of vegetation, must have been bright and gorgeous under the sun, richly colored and designed to impress, with their tiered temples and palaces, and spacious plazas. The red color of the paint was created with cochineal bugs.

Some temples had living quarters, maybe for priests or royals. They left little to inform us. The Maya lived outdoors for the most part, using rooms only for sleeping. The elite rooms feature a slab of stone, often quite large, as a bed—very much like the concrete slabs we slept on at Hotel Azul36. These slabs would be covered with matting or perhaps mattresses stuffed with the cottony insides of ceiba fruit. There were often niches cut in the wall or into the sides of the stone platform, perhaps for personal storage. The common people lived in wattle-and-daub round huts with palm-thatched roofs, so there is little left of them, if anything. Cooking was done outdoors, and there is no evidence here of kitchens.

There was a magnificent ceiba tree at Calakmul, one of the largest trees in the area. At this time of year it is leafless, but we could see the many small, oval fruits on its branches. With its height, symmetry and white bark, it reminded me of the White Tree of Gondor. The Maya thought the ceiba tree was the tree of life, holding up the sky.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

The largest pyramid was dedicated to Chaak, of course. There was also a temple dedicated to Venus (the planet, not the Greek goddess). Venus was essential in the Mayan calendar, and was also associated with Kukulcan, a feathered serpent god precursor to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl—but Roberto said there was no evidence of Kukulcan worship at Calakmul.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Maya. Time and the jungle obliterated much, and the Spanish took over from there. It’s only due to a few Spanish friars that any of the Mayan codices were copied and translated. Hundreds of these Maya documents were burned, and artifacts stolen or destroyed. And yet, there are still many people who speak one dialect or another of that ancient language and continue to pass down the ancient stories, one generation to the next.

The artifacts at Calakmul have either been removed to the archeological museum in Mexico City, or walled off from the public by archeologists. There were three royal tombs discovered there with jade masks. Roberto showed us photographs. They were widely separated in time. The earliest is composed of tiny pieces of jade, needed to be able to show the curvature of the face. The second uses larger pieces that have been worked to create curves, but the third, composed of large pieces, is a stunning work of art. The ability to work with jade at all is impressive, given that jade is harder than steel, and the Maya had no metal tools. They barely had any gold, as it was obtained only through trade, and they considered jade more beautiful.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We could have gone on to the merchant quarters and marketplace, but we thought we’d seen the best of Calakmul–at least that part of it that has been excavated. We walked back to the entrance, seeing a family of white-lipped peccaries on the way. They are much smaller than wild boars, but they have pretty much the same attitude. We gave them a wide berth and went on, Roberto pointing out the flora and fauna as he went. Unfortunately, I had little time to write everything down. We were scheduled to do something every day, and I was always so tired from the heat, humidity and walking that I fell asleep every night without journaling.

 

 

Save

Frank Meets Dad: A Lie in 793 Words

Foreword

I wrote the following short-short story some time in the 90’s. I was managing a high tech public relations firm. Being a bunch of creative types, we had a writer’s club we called “The Jackhammer Society.” Once a week or so, we’d meet at lunch and share our fiction or poetry. (It was fun while it lasted–right, Laura Wigod?) I was going through some old files on my computer and re-read “Frank Meets Dad,” and found myself chuckling at it, so here it is. BTW, the story is a complete lie except that my father did once run for office, was defeated, and thus spared the world his career in politics.wildebeest-fight

Frank Meets Dad

Well, Frank threw the first punch, though it was my Dad who ended up in jail, not Sinatra.

Dad had his doubts about meeting Sinatra in the first place. This was in the late Sixties and Dad was running for political office in California. He wanted to be governor someday, and was trying to work his way up the political ranks. Dad got this invitation in the mail one day: “Mr. Frank Sinatra requests the pleasure of your attendance at a fund-raising dinner for the Republican National Committee.”

“I always liked the man’s voice. He’s a talented singer. But he’s a punk,” growled Dad, brooding over a second martini. “He’s got no business in politics. And he hangs around with the Mafia.” Dad went on for several more chapters about Mr. Sinatra’s flawed character, including injured photographers, discarded mistresses and his daughter’s singing career, which Dad thought was an example of the worst sort of nepotism.

“And he drinks too much,” Dad declared over his third or fourth martini.

But in the end, he went. He said it was because there would be important political connections at the party, but I think he went to meet Sinatra.

The party was held in Las Vegas, at The Sands. (“It would be,” said Dad. “The whole place is run by mafiosos.”) The cost was $1000 a plate, so Mom didn’t go. Dad was introduced to Sinatra after dinner as “a promising Republican candidate for the California State Legislature.” Sinatra was smoking a cigar, which he could do because it didn’t involve inhaling the smoke into his golden vocal chords. Dad had quit smoking cigarettes, and was therefore smoking a wicked little black cigarillo. Dad and Sinatra eyed each other through a blue curtain of smoke.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Sinatra,” said Dad, extending his large, fine-boned hand. Sinatra smiled his cold smile and shook hands.

“Have a seat, Jack,” Sinatra said, waving towards a chair.

My father looked around and sat down. There were several large, dark-suited bouncer-types nearby, he noted with satisfaction. Probably Sinatra’s Mafia bodyguards.

“What’ll’ya have?” Sinatra said, snapping his fingers at the attentive waiter behind him.

“Vodka martini, twist of lemon, easy on the vermouth,” Dad said, never looking at the waiter.

“Whiskey, The Glenlivet, neat,” said Sinatra, keeping his eyes on Dad.

The Mafia-types moved in a little, so Dad stretched his considerable length out to show how relaxed he was.

Sinatra began a conversation about the state of the GOP in California, and asked what Dad was going to do about it if he won his Legislature seat in the next election. Dad started in talking about the issues –– by now he had it all down pretty smoothly. He got Sinatra interested, and soon they were arguing amiably about public education.

The topic soon changed from politics to guns and from guns to women. By the time they were both on their third shared round of drinks, they seemed like old friends. Dad was in the middle of trying to explain the fascinations of marlin fishing to Frank, when Sinatra pulled a cigar from the breast pocket of his silk suit and offered it to him.

“Don’t tell anybody. It’s Cuban,” Sinatra said, pantomiming someone looking around for government bugs.

Dad froze. “There’s no way you could get Cuban cigars without connections into Havana,” he said, and the ambient temperature dropped 100 degrees. He stood up, all six feet and five inches of him and towered over Sinatra.

“Anyone who traffics with an enemy of the government of the United States is an enemy of mine,” he declared, glaring down at Sinatra’s darkening face breathing single-malt whiskey fumes up at him.

Before the Mafia-types could move, Sinatra bounced up.

“Bastard!” he screamed. Although he was eight inches shorter, Sinatra threw a punch and connected with my father’s thin midriff. As Dad folded, the Mafia-types closed in and hustled him out of the room, where he was collected by the Las Vegas Sheriff’s Department.

They let him go the next morning. As a cop handed Dad his keys and wallet, he said, “Mr. Sinatra has generously decided not to press charges. Sir. I wouldn’t push it, if I was you. Sir.”

Dad was pretty peeved, but he wasn’t stupid. He let it drop (though we heard about it at home for the rest of his life). He ran for the Legislature and lost, and decided to quit politics. He said the system was broken. So that was that.

Oh, yes. After he lost the election, Dad took his collection of Sinatra LP’s out to the skeet range and systematically used them all for target practice. It wasn’t fair, but he shot all the Dean Martin LP’s too.

 

The Home of My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She Finds Sea Glass by the Sea Shore

treasures

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

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

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

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

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

UV, or "Vaseline" glass with uranium.

UV, or “Vaseline” glass with uranium.

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

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

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

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

“Go find your own hole!”

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

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

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

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

Sea glass millefiori rod with UV star.

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

Sea marble.

Sea marble.

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

This bottle bottom says "FORBID."

This bottle bottom says “FORBID.”

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

Photography by Kerry Keenan Gil

Meow Wolf: It’s Fucking Awesome


I had an adventure today. I visited the Meow Wolf Collective in Santa Fe, NM. I knew it was a huge experiential art installation but I had no idea what to expect. It was like a mad mashup of Disneyland, something Tim Burton might have done, Rivendell, a children’s museum, Harry Potter, the Twilight Zone, Salvadore Dali, and a Ray Bradbury story. And yet, I have fallen woefully short of describing it with any accuracy.
The centerpiece of the experience is a recreation of a Victorian house, but it isn’t made to look like a haunted house or anything. It’s a full-sized, two-story house contained in what used to be a bowling alley. It is surrounded by many other exhibits, but let’s start here. Inside the house, each room appears fairly normal, bar the dim lighting. But there is always something odd, weird or just strange about every room. Open the closet door in an upstairs bedroom and there is a corridor leading to a cavern adorned with stalactites and crystals with a glowing mammoth skeleton seemingly embedded in the rock. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom has glass vials full of herbs, while the prescription bottles have hilarious instructions for use. The floor tiles wave underfoot.
In one room, an artist is painting a canvas. In the kitchen, open the refrigerator door to find a passage to made-up destinations, directions to which are provided by a hologram. (Yes, you can go to these destinations.) The art on the walls is sometimes mundane, and sometimes seriously strange or even disturbing.
Surrounding the house are ramps and Rivendell-like vines, flowers, and glowing…things. You can walk across a bridge from the balcony of the house to a recreation of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed cottage. There is a tunnel of video screens, a room full of crustaceans, tree fungi that glow and make drum noises when you pat them. There’s a light harp made of laser beams that plays notes when the beams are interrupted. There’s a room with a 15-foot-high rabbit with glowing eyes that reminded me of “Donny Darko.” Every surface is textured, painted, glowing, or interesting in some way.
One of the things I most appreciated about Meow Wolf was its complete lack of the sneering negativity so often expressed by modern art. The experience was positive, exciting, surprising, intriguing, and sometimes puzzling, and it made me extremely happy. Meow Wolf received seed funding from G.R.R. Martin, author of “Game of Thrones'” who lives in Santa Fe. I would love to see other such experiential art installations in other cities that have an innovative and creative spirit.
By the way, Meow Wolf is fantastic for kids. They can touch and explore and discover to their hearts’ content. There is also an art exploration area exclusively for children.
After all this specific description, I feel I have completely failed to describe Meow Wolf. Here’s some pictures–I’m sure they’ll give you a better idea. Maybe. Go there. You will not be disappointed.




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.