Visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday and felt the urge to paint. This is a shoreline scene from East Blue Hill, Maine.
Visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday and felt the urge to paint. This is a shoreline scene from East Blue Hill, Maine.
I’m working on a new story about dinosaurs. In my childhood, these terrible lizards were an obsession. I memorized dozens of them. They are no less impressive to children today. When I visited the American Museum of Natural History, I was surrounded by awestruck kids who could barely speak at the sight of such enormous, incredible monsters.
I went there to rekindle my old fascination and came across this fellow. His official name is Deinonychus (dye-nonny-kus) antirrhopus (“terrible claw”), an early Cretaceous period non-avian maniraptor. The paleontologist John Ostrom came up with a revolutionary theory in the 1960s that some of these creatures were quick, agile, and predatory. This undercut the prevailing notion that dinosaurs were large, slow-footed beasts, and made them even more frightening and astonishing.
Although the text beside the display says the creature was non-avian—which I assume means it didn’t actually fly—the fossil is posed in its glass cabinet (to my bewilderment) as if it was hurtling through the air.
Look at those fantastic teeth! The bones of its skull are full of gaps, which suggests that its head was much lighter than some of its theropod contemporaries. I eyeballed the length of its upper and lower arm and leg bones. They looked shockingly similar to the proportions of a human skeleton. In fact, as I stood near it in the noisy exhibition hall, I imagined this creature sitting in the driver seat of a pickup truck with its tail thrashing in the back seat!
I went to Oaxaca, Mexico in January in search of something that eluded me at year’s end. Forgiveness for the mistakes I made over the year? Perhaps. A sense of renewal? Permission to try again? Relief from the dark skies, short days, and the urban crush of my home latitude and longitude. Most of all, I believe it was relief.
Christmas was thankfully over. I always hate it. The whole, ratty, tattered red-and-green phantom of festive goodwill. It’s a sham. An over-hyped, commercialized froth of fake cheer. An inebriated, rosy-cheeked, mockery of mindfulness. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, but hate the holiday, the overused crushed red velvet, drunken Santa Con participants, albino cookies that taste of nothing but sugar, candy canes that turn up in your pocket, stuck to your fingers, and absurdly thin rolls of wrapping paper sold three-packs (what a bargain). I hate tinsel, glass tree balls, and popcorn strings, dry pine needles in every crevice, cheap holiday lights that blink, strobe or glow with cheesy electronic music that resembles dying crickets. Those hideous Santa mannikins in shop windows with scary, ventriloquist dummy faces? They terrify me. I hate fake shiny packages in shop displays that aren’t really gifts. I don’t trust elves, people who wear reindeer antlers, carolers who show up at your door uninvited, and freaks who wear Santa caps for a solid month.
Charles Dickens wrote about the season quite simply in “A Christmas Carol,” evoking a tender spirit of redemption and goodwill. We’ve really botched it up since then. It’s the holiday month from hell. A day or two would be fine, but thirty miserable, unrelenting days of yuletide songs is a dreadful ordeal. And the ten best lists, oh, I hate them the most! The best songs of the year, the best movies, the best books? C’mon, there are never that many. Critics dole out awards with charitable intent, but sometimes it’s just a crap year and best to get it over with. And spare me the best dead people of the year—that’s the most awful list—when some magazine pulls together an obituary of deceased celebrities.
You think I’m a Christmas-hater? Guilty as charged. I’m a yuletide grouch. A negative, nay-saying nabob of the Nativity. Christmas is the overbearing, obnoxious, disappointing family relative of holidays. He comes sooner than expected, overstays his welcome, and leaves me disgusted and hating myself for not enjoying the visit. He’s the holiday who you must like, the big generous, snoring, guzzling, excessive bore who ho-ho-hoes whenever there’s a pause in the conversation. That’s Christmas for me.
“Get behind me, Christmas,” I say. I’d rather celebrate my year’s end like a pagan, watching the sunrise over stonehenge in blessed silence.
Thankfully, by the time I landed at Oaxaca, there was no sign of Christmas. A brown haze hung over town, the smell of diesel was everywhere, and the ubiquitous presence of poured concrete for every dwelling confirmed my escape to a southern lattitude, but left me a tad doubtful about my choice of a getaway.
On the streets I heard people wishing each other “Feliz año nuevo,” and going on their way without silly 2020 glasses or trash on the streets. The sun’s hot eye blazed the cobblestone streets with dazzling intensity. The colors of the houses were as vivid as a pantone-enhanced fruit bowl. But look, the year could be new without cheesy sentiment and trash in the streets.
As a children’s book writer, I try to avoid using the word magic because it’s overused—like Christmas. I’m a culprit, I’ll admit, having written several books that invoke magic. And so I say this, knowing that you’ll roll your eyes, but you cannot walk around Oaxaca without feeling a sense of magic. I’m not talking about tricks, or inexplicable powers, or a sense of childish wonder. I’m really talking about magic as a crossroads between nature, human faith, and a sense of the wondrous. It’s there in Oaxaca, but not in the tourist stalls or the knick-knack shops. I felt it tasting the different chile sauces; I felt it as I stepped from bright streets onto the cool tiles of shadowed interiors; I tasted it in the metzcal; sensed it on the amazing hilltop ruins of Monté Alban; and hiking down a rocky and inhospitable trail, I felt it in the clear air, the wild espadín and tobala agave plants, and squinting in that bright, blazing, unrelenting sun.
The three pictures above evoke magic of Oaxaca for me. The first picture is from a place about and hour and a half southeast of Oaxaca, named Hierve el Agua, where a subterranean water vent bursts from under the earth’s crust and creates a watery plateau which petrifies everything it touches, then trickles down the cliff, leaving a streak of colors running down the precipice.
The second picture is a nagual, a mesoamerican spirit, human in form, but capable of transforming itself into an animal. Depending on the culture, it can be a magician, a trickster, a protective entity or a pest. This nagual is a wood-carved alebrije, from the town of Arrazola. I was struck by the particularly human stare on its face. It’s unsettling. Unforgiving. It defies cuteness. The more conventional alebrije figures available to tourists on the street are painted with the same delicate detail, but pretty. This one, I believe, is magic.
The third picture is an agave plant, common everywhere, but at this particular time it happens to be a farmed plant, essential to the production of metzcal, a growing artisanal industry in Oaxaca. Both of the guided tours we took included a metzcal tasting. It’s a distilled liquor; though some would dismiss it as neighborhood hooch or moonshine; but now it’s beyond a fad. Swirl it in your mouth for a few seconds then swallow. It packs a bracing punch. One sage warned me to stay away from it. Others promised me it cured anything from liver disease to a bad stomach infection. With so many opinions, how can it not be magic?
After my third or fourth day in Oaxaca, I felt changed. My anti-Christmas mood evaporated. I felt a sense of possibility, a fresh fascination with the world that I feared I had lost for good. Perhaps it was simply the exposure to bright sunlight after all those dark days in New York, or the chiles, or the change in venue, or standing on a plateau of still water over a desert landscape. In any case, it was transformative and invigorating.
* * *
This year I will write to both of my senators, my congressman, my state representative, my mayor, and my President. This year I will vote for a comprehensive climate plan, an honest President and a greener economy. This year, I will use less plastic, eat less meat, and use more public transportation. Whatever I did last year, I will ramp it up THIS year. That’s my pledge.
Went to Iceland at the end of September for a five day visit (which is not enough time to see any country for the first time, but it’s a good first taste). Reykjavik has the feel of a small, modern city in transition: cranes on the skyline; buildings rising along the waterfront; an interesting arts and music scene; and, naturally, the dreaded puffin triangle downtown for tourists seeking tokens of their stay. There are gems, downtown, too; notably the Fischer House, a small, dark, sensory exploration of olfactory delights with provocative video art displays and witty explanations of its various products. Lift a series of small bell jars to experience the smells of various places. We had great tacos at the Kex Hostel, excellent snacks and wine at the Vinstúkan Tíu Sopar wine bar, and an extraordinary dinner at the Fishmarkadurinn, with an erupting volcanic dessert.
Our group went for the obligatory tourist shakedown at the Blue Lagoon, a spa not far from Kerflavik airport, for an eerie, somewhat soothing soak in the sulfurous waters. We visited Thingvellir National Park, Vithey Island, Gunnuhver Hot Springs, lost our way inside the Snaefellsness Peninsula (oops, wrong turn across the mountains!), but eventually found Vatnshellir Cave, the Londrangar basalt cliffs and Snaefellsjökull glacier.
We made a pledge to drive up the road to the glacier—just to touch it—but the sun sank over the twin horns of the volcano, and the glacier seemed unwilling to meet us. After a bumpy four-wheel slog up a road riddled with holes, we stopped at a vista point, agreeing to let the glacier maintain its delicate solitude while we took in the cool air, the silence, and the amazing view before us.
The stark reality of a warming atmosphere in a place as beautiful as Iceland (where the weather for late September was unseasonably warm and sunny) wasn’t lost on us. What a mess we’ve made of the world (that’s a collective “we”). I’d like to go back there, but will try to earn it by letting the car gather dust on the street for a few months, resisting the use of plastic bags, and halving my meat consumption.
I’m always on the lookout for a good idea for a puppet. Here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, we have a children’s Halloween Parade, and over the years there have been some fantastic puppets, from mermaids, pirate ships, exotic birds and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish umbrellas.
My contribution a few years ago was a ten-foot Don Quixote puppet with shield and lance. The shield is barely visible from this angle (but it was great!). I think I got rid of the lance after about eight blocks of walking. After doing this parade I developed great respect for anybody who has carried a giant puppet; you need muscles (and painkillers), to do a long walk with something like this balanced on your shoulders!
A few weeks ago, I was inspired to write (well . . . to start writing) an epic fiction tale about ants. I dove into the subject, roamed the internet, watched videos, went to the library and read books on ant behavior, including Ants At Work, by Deborah Gordon, a fascinating study of insect society. I was interested in the fact that ants have limited roles in the colony, that they have few choices, and live, fundamentally, for the benefit of the whole nest.
I went as far as to compose a heroine in a vast, old, ant society who is designated to be a queen by the reigning queen and sent off to establish a new nest. The more I learned, however, the harder it became to write my story.
Ant colonies begin with one queen who lays thousands of eggs, most of them female. These ants assume tasks, either as nurturers of the larvae, foragers, patrollers or fertile future queens. Ants have no leaders, no managers, and yet they act through their sense of smell, identifying each other by task and adopting tasks according to the frequency of their encounters with other working ants.
Many ants do nothing in the nest but wander around until provoked by encounters and pheromones to perform a function. The event that drives them to act might be a famine, or a potential flood that compels thousands to start shoring up the tunnels, or an invading creature like a spider or a lizard that stimulates them to attack in vast numbers.
I thought this was an interesting way of looking at human life. We believe we direct our own actions; much of what we do feels like waiting around; but occasionally a tragedy, or a political occurrence, or some other unifying event compels us to rally, to act, either by helping each other or scattering in panic.
As I tried to construct a dramatic tale around this idea, I became stumped by the fact that ants function with the simplicity of algorithms. They have no personal interactions. There are no ant families or relationships. The larvae are attended to by their nurturing ants deep underground and the queen does nothing but lay eggs. There are no principal figures in ant life. No executives, no advisers to the queen, no mothers or fathers. The more I tried to anthropomorphize my ant characters (giving them qualities that made them more interesting to a reader), the more I realized how sad and grim their lives were.
In the end, I realized that the qualities I find interesting in any story—relationships with surprising alliances and conflicting motives—are antithetical (pun intended) to ant life. Ants are more like lines of code. They are fascinating, and capable of building enormous societies, but they have more in common with a virus than with people.
I abandoned the idea. It didn’t make sense to write a story about ants if I had to turn them into people in order to make them dramatically engaging. Conversely, if I took people and turned them into ants in my story, I doubted that they would live long enough to finish the tale.
Be glad you’re not an ant!
Here’s one of my favorite riddles by Shakespeare:
“Who builds stronger things than a stonemason, a shipbuilder, or a carpenter?”
The answer is a gravedigger. “… The houses that he makes last till doomsday.”
The riddle comes from Act V of Hamlet, and it’s told, of course, by a gravedigger.
Riddles are an important feature of my Gabriel Finley novels.
Each book has over thirty of them. My hero bonds with a raven by answering a riddle, riddles get him out of danger, and riddles enable him to defeat the villain.
The reason that children are so fond of riddles is obvious: they’re fun, silly, clever, and sometimes devilishly simple. They’re also a pleasant diversion from linear thinking. The puns and metaphors in riddles give young minds a break from conventional classroom work. I must stress, however, that that nothing in a classroom should be conventional. Children aren’t conventional; they all think differently and most teachers realize this.
I think of riddles as treats, as candy for the brain. Riddles empower children. Confounding a sibling, friend, and—most importantly—an adult, is a great power.
Teachers and librarians at my author visits know that riddles are a prominent focus of my presentations, which always end with riddles. Nothing can reduce this author to a gape-mouthed idiot faster than thirty children asking him riddles. Nothing pleases students more. Riddles rule!