A Few of Our Favorite Things

This time of year is especially steeped in old and new traditions celebrating religious deities, mid-winter rituals, and honoring our heroes past and present. We join with our loved ones, in our homes, in our communities, and revel.

Admittedly, I get annoyed with the crass commercialization that currently exists. As an American I sometimes feel steeped (and am) in a massive swirl of junk and nonsense. But I try hard to overlook this and take pleasure instead in the humble sweetness of being alive on planet earth.

Last night our 7 year old neighbor friend came over for a playdate to have dinner and open a few presents. He came over very excited and lovable, with his backpack filled with things to show us:  a pint container filled with stones and rocks to look at with his magnifying glass, a yellow plastic gun filled with mini marshmallows that he shot against a target we concocted, a bag of marshmallows (of course), a very cool thing called a beyblade that was a flashy version of a spinning top, and his finger flashlight for the walk home. We didn’t talk about Santa (do we have to lie to celebrate?) but we had a great and wild time, and sweet moments. He sang Feliz Navidad, one of the songs he performed that day for the school program.

I like humans a lot, they’re my species. I also like many other mammals and animals of all sorts, and I go to them in my mind when I am overwhelmed with humans. It was the Australian bowerbird who came to mind recently one busy Wednesday as I stood in line at Target.

My current book is set in Australia, so I have spent a lot of time studying and visiting Australia. Their bowerbirds are fascinating. There are eight or so different kinds of bowerbirds and they all build their bowers  differently, and then each individual adds their own special decorative touches.

The actual bower is a grassy structure made of sticks and grass, and the size and shape varies depending on the bowerbird species and location.  It is a stage they build, to attract a mate. The bower bird is especially fascinating because of what they do to decorate their bower. There is nothing quite like it on this earth.

BowerWhat you see in this photo is the beginning of a satin bowerbird bower we found when we were birdwatching in the rainforest one day. It is absolutely crazy to come across something like this in the forest. You’re hiking through a smelly, dripping rainforest that is completely devoid of humans, it is entirely organic and non-human.  Climbing over huge slimy downed trees, you’re focused on avoiding thick streams of ant armies and intimidated by the cacophony of squawking and cackling. And then you come across something like this that is a massive mess of human debris. It looks like trash. Your first thought would be “Gross” except that all the “trash” is in one color. Bic pens, colored clothespins (called “pegs” in Australia), plastic straws, cigarette wrappers, bits of balloon, feathers—all in blue. What the….?

This is the proud estate of a male satin bowerbird.

These incredible birds build structures far taller than themselves and painstakingly collect all the most beautiful baubles they can find from all over their kingdom. So I think about this in that long line at the checkout, I look into the carts of my fellow humans to see what baubles they are transporting from this big, red empire to their own proud estates.

We like to share our beautiful things with one another and rejoice in our community. The satin bowerbird dazzles a future mate with exotic blue items, our little friend carries his special prizes on his back to entertain his friends. What a wonderful thing.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

This star is an outdoor dShooting-Star_BTPhelanecoration we put up for the holidays. Only one other family sees it because we live at the end of the road in a forest. But it is a welcome sight to all 5 of us on a foggy, rainy night. At night it shines into both the kitchen and bedroom windows, and throughout the past weeks it started me thinking about all the aspects of a star. I like to do the New York Times crossword puzzles. The nature of crosswords is to think about all the many connotations for one word. So I’ve been thinking about the word “star.”

My first book came out exactly one month ago, so I have been thinking about what it is to be a star. I wander around in the book store, looking at the back of the books, studying author photos. The rest of the store is bustling with holiday traffic and big strollers that fill the little aisles…and there I am gazing at a photo of Patricia Cornwall, wondering what it must be like to have sold so many, many books. What would it be like to be a famous star?

At this point in my life I have sold more books, and gained more readers, than ever before. I am very happy about this. But what would it be like to be a star, like Patricia Cornwall?  Some variation of this thought touches most writers’ and artists’ minds. It is a big step to take your sacred art and put it out for all the world to see, admire and…argh…criticize.

So I was running errands downtown this week when an old woman stepped into the street and flagged me down. She didn’t look deranged or vicious, so I stopped.

She asked, “Can you give me a ride to Safeway?”

This old woman is hitching a ride?  I have family and friends who are advanced seniors now, and I know this woman has got to be in her 80s. Wondering if she was in her right mind, I questioned, “Which Safeway?”

She pointed to the one that was only about six blocks away, so I said, “Sure.”  I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for her to hop in.

For one thing, I drive a 4WD pick-up truck and it’s high off the ground. For another thing, octogenarians don’t hop.

I don’t know this woman so even though it is instinctual for me to get out and help her, I also understand I probably shouldn’t give her a two-handed butt heft like I would my mother or mother-in-law. Standing on the running board, she finds the ceiling handle for assistance. But she’s not strong enough to pull herself up with one hand. She sets down her really big purse on the car floor, tries with both hands.

Darn, she’s caught on her coat. The problem is her little rear end is getting pinched in the coat before she can get it into the car seat. After three failed attempts to get on the seat she says, “Why don’t I hold myself up, and you pull the coat out from underneath me.”  I do this, and ta-da, she lands on the seat. We take off. I always drive slower with octogenarians, it seems to be less nerve-wracking for them.

“I don’t usually do this” she starts, “but my friend just called. She’s had an accident. I’m meeting her at Safeway.”

Just a minute ago I was rockin’ out, singing along to Airborne Toxic Event, headed for the party store to get some holiday decorations. It’s quiet now and I’m driving slowly with a fragile old woman in my passenger seat. My thought is, I don’t usually do this either.

I say, “Oh that’s too bad.”

“Some people” she said, “they just don’t think.”

I think about this.

Then I laugh and say, “That’s true. Some people” I laughed some more, “they really just don’t think.”  She laughed. We both had a few loud guffaws, this old woman and me, laughing about how ridiculous things can be.

Her phone rang. It was in that capacious bag at her feet. She moved so slowly that by the time she got to her phone it had stopped ringing. But soon it rang again. “I’m only a block away” she said into the phone, “I’ll be there soon.”

And soon we were there. As we drove through the parking lot to the front entrance, she thanked me several times. “I can just get out here” she said. It was still 20 paces from the front door and I guessed this would take her a long time to traverse. “Oh no” I said, “I can take you to the door.”  And I did.

She made her way out of the truck. Had a good long rest on the running board and lowered herself down to the pavement, waved, thanked me again, and we parted.

I thought about all this later, when I was home. It would have taken her hours to get down to the Safeway if I hadn’t picked her up. I don’t even know if she would have made it. It was six big city blocks and she was so frail and so slow. It was a good thing she found me, and not some crazy desperado who easily could have taken her purse, or worse, hurt her.

I thought to myself, I think I was a star today.

Plotting Plots

This photo is a good demonstration of what my brain looks like when I’m Imagecreating the plots to my novels. Oh sure, it looks like a string of Christmas tree lights, but it’s also a mass of crisscrossing synapses at work during my plot plotting time.

I enjoy the challenge of plotting mystery novels, but it certainly is not easy. There has to be the obvious, of course, the murder of one or more characters in the book. But there also has to be a lot of suspicious characters, red herrings or false clues to the murder, and then the strategic placement of various mystery clues. Add to that the imperative envelopment of each character’s point of view regarding the murder, and the plot literally thickens.

For instance if the housewife suspects the mailman, I have to get into the mind of the housewife and the mailman. I need to keep track of what the housewife thinks, how she reacts to the mailman, and then, just as importantly, what she knows about the murder and the mailman. Then the mailman, too, because he is a character he has a stake in all of this, so I need to relay what he knows about the murder, and how he reads or does not read the reaction of the housewife toward him.

Of course there are more than just two characters involved in a good mystery, so it will naturally get more complicated with each new character. Then there is another layer, and it is the important layer of The Reader.

I have an allegiance to my readers, every novelist does. In mystery novels the author has to be aware at all times of what the reader knows, and then bring them along gradually, informing them of developments. It is unfair to involve your reader in a mystery without giving them clues and ways to solve the murder. Agatha Christie, who is one of my heroes, sometimes wrote mysteries in which the reader could not possibly have figured out the murderer. Long lost cousin inherits and we don’t know this person, or his motive, until the last few chapters. That’s not fair. I give Agatha Christie a lot of room on that, however, because she was great and there’s always a lot to learn from her regardless of a few shortcomings. Also, this unwritten fairness rule is a more modern aspect of mystery writing that was less pronounced in her day.

But here we are in the end of 2012 and it’s not cool to fool your reader. So I think about all of this as I sit at my desk, crowded in the empty room with a lot of fictional characters yakking away at me. Everyone wants to be a star.

As one does with a tangle of Christmas light strands, I unwind what I can, follow the leads when they present themselves, and plod through the confusion with patience. When it all gets really mind-boggling, I get up from the desk and fill my water glass; take a new, fresh drink on the situation and wait for clarity.

Characters in My Mysteries

This photo is a close-uElephantHidep of an elephant’s hide that my partner snapped from a “blind” we were in, in East Africa. What you’re not seeing is the gargantuan animal, her impressive maneuvering trunk, those huge round feet, sexy long eyelashes, and tattered ears as big as a bike tire. What you are seeing;  her wrinkles and the vulnerable yet tough surface of a magnificent and breathing creature. There is so much to see and feel in every living creature, this is what I have learned from my time on earth.

What I try to capture in my novels is how different we humans are from one another, and yet how similar we are, too. We have different ways of being, thinking, loving, honoring, expressing; but mostly, we grow from our newborn state into a child, a teen, an adult. And then in a span of usually 80 or 90 years, our breathing stops and we expire. When we’re young we think we have an infinite amount of time to live, when we’re old we worry that our time is nearly over. This is human nature.

It’s the way we use that time that is really the important thing. This is not just a cliché, this is a hard human fact of life on earth. We who keep on living, keep on living. We can change or not, but either way, life really will just keep moving forward. This aspect is what I have been observing in aging humans, it is what I have come to enjoy writing about.

We all make mistakes. This is another fact of human nature. A man who has a fight with his wife, for instance. They fight in the morning before they leave for work and they drive off angry with each other, and then she has a car crash on the freeway and she dies. He wishes, he aches, to bring back that morning and tell her how much he loves her, but he can’t because she’s gone forever.

What does a person do with that self-loathing and regret that they carry in their heart?

We all do different things. We all have different dramas. One person might justify it was an important thing they were fighting about, blocking out the pain, stifling it, for years and years. They drink too much gin, gain weight, become quietly bitter. Someone else might be inconsolable for a year, then hit bottom in some ugly way, go to therapy, learn how to forgive themselves, and eventually find a new wife whom they love and adore. Someone else might devote the rest of their life to séances with the hope of reaching their departed loved one.

As a middle-aged person who has struggled with an aging body, time gone by, mistakes and regrets, and the uncontrollable race of time, I know only one thing for sure:  it is what we DO that matters. And this is what I try to relate to in my stories. No one way is right, it’s whatever we are capable of that makes the difference. And what are we capable of?

Most people are capable of being far greater than they realize. Some people prefer to let life slip through the cracks rather than confront what is holding them back from making change. Some people would rather spend their lives blaming their failures on other people or unfortunate circumstances. Some people gather up all the courage they have, and more, and they conquer their demons.

We are basically born in the same way, but we are none of us born with the same circumstances. But as long as we have the gift of breathing, we can move forward. We collect scars on our skin and wrinkles inevitably show up, but it’s what we have inside and what we do with what we have, that makes us beautiful.

Exploring the Amazon

I am happy to announce the publication this week of my new e-book, Wicked Walkabout. I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction for 29 years, have been published in various newspapers, periodicals and magazines. But this is my biggest thrill ever. For the past four years I have seriously been writing novels, typing away, typing away, in my house in the woods. I go into town once a week to pick up supplies, socialize on weekends, and other than that I sit in my office all day long, thinking and typing. To sell my book on Amazon is a dream-come-true. Time to celebrate–but but not for long–because there are so many stories to share….

Mysteries Around the World

I am very happy to announce my soon-to-be-released e-book entitled “Wicked Walkabout.” I hope that everyone reading this will buy a copy, due out on the Day After Thanksgiving.

Although I have many favorite activities, one of them is to travel. Another one is to write stories. I’ve been doing both—traveling and writing—for several decades and this book is the glorious combination of both. It’s a great way to share the many wondrous places that exist on this globe…and I have a long list of mysteries and venues to share. The next novel is entitled Sinister Safari and is based in the Serengeti. I am currently writing that and it’s due out sometime in 2013.

Since the world is such a blessedly large place, my partner and I have focused our travel on places where we can find the most wildlife. In 1999 we made a family decision to spend our time and money on traveling the world. Sounds like a simple declaration, and is. But there were many priorities along the way that required deliberation and action (what about kids?, pets?, a big house?). We have tailored our jobs and lifestyle in pursuit of this goal, and we had to close some doors while opening the travel doors.

For instance, when we first made this decision, we had saved up enough money (over ten years) to deposit a sizeable down-payment on our first house. This is not an easy thing to do in the SF Bay Area with high housing costs. Then one day soon after we’d made our Travel-the-World decision, a brochure for an African Safari arrived in the mail. Uh-oh. Within a week we had pirated a large chunk of our house down payment to pay for our first trip to Africa!

We of course had a spectacular time in Africa, and we discovered upon return that a month-long romp in the open grasslands of Africa had changed our lives forever. The main thing, we learned, was that we couldn’t live on a little urban lot anymore; and secondly, we had to go back very soon. We needed space. To roam. Like the wildebeests and the cheetahs. Had we turned into wildebeests without knowing it?

Our first house was purchased, therefore, on a one-lane road several hours outside the Bay Area. Here we had space, wildlife, affordable real estate, and a very modest house. This rural move, however, had a ripple effect on our jobs and lives. Cut to the chase: we have lived here in our little house in the woods for 11 years now, and spend almost everything we make on travelling…and have never for a second regretted any of those decisions.

Our travels have taken us to Africa three times, Australia twice, the Galapagos, several parts of Europe, South America and Central America. In the United States, our home, we really enjoy going to Hawaii as often as possible, and we’ve also explored much of the west coast, where we live. Lots of fun on the east coast, the Gulf coast, and the Rockies; and we visit the Midwest frequently which includes wildlife and family. Sometime I’ll tell you about all of those places and some of the crazy adventures we’ve encountered, either here or in one of my books.

We find chasing after wildlife a really fun thing to do because it keeps us outdoors and active, and we have the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures in the world. Fellow wildlife adventurers are also very fun to befriend.

The big cities around the world are where many people like to go, and we always find something interesting to observe when we are there: historical places, museums, restaurants, hotels; all very lovely. The hub-cities are also where we have to fly to in order to take additional transportation out to the boonies. And the handy amenities of a hotel room like a non-dirt floor, flushing toilets, warm and delicious food, and hot, running water are not to be ignored.

But the real fun, for us, begins when we leave the fast-paced, human environments and head for the hills. Hills and mountains, or flat plains and deserts, or rainforests and muddy riverbanks.

The next blog will talk about Australia since that’s where “Wicked Walkabout” is based. Stay tuned for photos and tales of the wild world of Ozzie Land.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. And please tell your friends about my new book. At only $4.99, it will take a lot of book sales to fund another African safari.