Category Archives: nature

Happy Means Happy

I woke up this morning with this song in my brain:

And my boot camp  workout instructor played it at the beginning of class today, so I figured it was a sign. (Funny how a great song can make hell class fun…)

It started me thinking about happiness and what it actually means. We’ve got some sun today (a miracle in itself here in the PacNW), the coffee’s strong and hot, the birds are singing, the trees are leafing out because hey, it’s spring, and I get to work on a book. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s the small moments every day that make up happiness, at least for me.photo of backyard lilacs

Sure, it’s great if/when the big stuff happens like winning the lottery, or getting a new job, or selling a gazillion books, welcoming a new addition to the family, whatever. But I’m convinced the key to being really happy is to notice all the everyday stuff we all take for granted. When’s the last time you were grateful for a hot shower? Or clean underwear? Or being able to walk a block without hacking up a lung (okay, probably those of us who got the crud this winter can relate to that one).  Anyway, my point is this–so many of us are running around in circles, waiting or looking for happiness (e.g., I’ll be happy when this happens, or that person notices, or I have X amount of money in the bank) that we’re missing all the good stuff.

Time with friends and family, hearing an awesome song on the radio (or waking up with it in your brain), the taste of dark chocolate, a car that runs, clean clothes–the list is endless. Yeah, the weekend dissolved faster than shaved ice on a hot sidewalk, and yes, I almost burned the house down because I forgot the hummingbird food cooking on the stove, which led me to bang my head against the cupboard as I rushed around the kitchen opening windows (the house smells like burnt sugar now. Could be worse 🙂 ) but ya know what? It’s all GOOD. And to top it all off, it’s Carol Burnett’s birthday. It seriously doesn’t get any better than that.

So, what makes you happy?


A Ranty Waste

Midsummer bonfire closeupI’ve been noticing that more things than usual are pissing me off lately. Most of the time when something pisses me off I write a book. Say, like when I watched a documentary on child sex trafficking and was so appalled I had to set the anger free by writing Bad Traffick. Or when I learned about the escalating violence of drug cartels and how they’re pretty much ruining life for a whole lotta folks in Mexico and beyond and all they really care about are how they look in a selfie on Facebook. And, of course when women perpetuate the whole “I need a man to become complete” myth, or, better yet, when one of us sets feminism back hundreds of years in one fell swoop (Fifty Shades of WTF anyone?).

But lately, there’s just been too much and really people, I can’t fucking write that fast.

Rant #1: Here in the US our politicians can’t figure out how to be politicians, or, you know, grow up and actually govern the country. And, they get paid a lot of money to act like schoolyard dickwads, not to mention enjoying paid-for-by-the-government health care (cue the irony theme). When I look at the leaders for both parties I can’t help but get a mental picture of two spoiled little white boys with snot running down their noses and sucking on their bottom lip in a pout because the other side won’t play by their rules. Waaah.

Rant #2: How celebrities like Miley and Kim and Paula Deen can suck the life out of the headlines when there are people in the Philippines who don’t have any clean drinking water or medical supplies and how hundreds are dying because we can’t get supplies to them fast enough.Or when people are selling their kidneys so they don’t have to live underneath someone else’s squalid shack.

Rant #3: And, the ever present fact that the only thing large corporations are concerned with is the bottom line, e.g. profits, screw being honest or neighborly or even giving a rat’s ass about their customers. Don’t get me started on how most corporations treat the environment, not to mention a whole lotta people who either just don’t get it, or don’t care. One earth–capiche????

And yes, I’ve been a daily meditator for several years now and should be able to relax and be all ohm and shit, but some days I. just. can’t.

The latest thing that set me off was an article about how a percentage of writers in the US avoid using the Internet to research certain subjects because of fears of the NSA spying on them. Seriously? What the hell happened to the proud tradition of writers bucking the system? Of being subversives? Of fighting back? When I read that article it pissed me off to the point that I had to do something, so I went to the pool and swam laps. Hard. I stopped (mostly) self-medicating years ago and swimming is now my go-to release. It took the edge off, but as I sit here at my computer I can still feel a flame of anger flickering in my gut when I wonder, if what these writers were doing was legal and for research, why anyone in the US would remain silent because they were afraid of a government agency watching them?

That’s so unbelievably scary, I can’t tell you. That tells me that Americans are becoming afraid of their government. My first response to the article, other than anger, was to assume these writers were wimps–scaredy pants, namby-pamby (insert wussy word here) milquetoasts who would jump if someone said boo.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my knee-jerk reaction (love the ‘jerk’ part of that saying) of calling these folks whom I don’t know wimps was wrong. I’m a HUGE proponent of fighting back: if you’re being attacked, however that attack is being carried out I believe it’s your responsibility to fight back with all you’ve got. Yes, there are some times when you need to pick your battles, but in general, fight the asshats trying to keep you down.

But this is different. This avoidance of using the interwebz goes deeper than that. Now we all know the NSA has overstepped its bounds, and has done so probably since its inception. But it hasn’t really affected most law-abiding citizens in a quantifiable way. However, when I hear or read that writers in the US are modifying their behavior because of fear of retaliation from the government, that makes me sit up and take notice. Mainly because I consort with a lot of writers, and almost every one of them has a least a modicum of rebelliousness in their bones and will do whatever in hell they want to. Some are nice about it, some aren’t. Some go the passive-aggressive route and act nice but end up doing some seriously un-nice things. But I’ve never heard one of them say they were afraid of what the government would do to them, unless what they were doing was illegal. But here’s the results of a poll of 520 writers where 16% admitted to curtailing their online activities because of fear of the NSA.NSA-square

My friends will tell you that yes, I’m opinionated, but am certainly not given over to hyperbole or conspiracy theories. I understand writers/journalists in China, or Iran, or Mexico being afraid–death or torture is a real possibility in those countries. But the US is supposed to be different. Americans are supposed to be different. It’s a slippery slope to censorship and clamping down on freedom of expression. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but it does give me pause.

I’m really interested in what people think about this. Is this some paranoid delusion rearing its ugly head in response to me killing all those little brain cells so many years ago, or do we need to be a little more vigilant, a little more aware of what’s happening in our world?As the article I mentioned above states, “It’s not the surveillance, treacherous as it is, but that some writers, at least, already appear willing to capitulate.”

In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “…we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu161337.html#edW4oJ51UtLXA8k3.99
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu161337.html#edW4oJ51UtLXA8k3.99
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu161337.html#edW4oJ51UtLXA8k3.99

Readers Want to Know…Yucatan Peninsula

Lately, I’ve gotten emails from readers asking how I came up with some of the scenes in Yucatan Dead and thought it would be fun to post the photographs that inspired them from my latest trip to Mexico. I’ve found actually traveling and researching a specific area and noting the sights, sounds, smells, and general feel of a place works wonders on my imagination and lends more credibility to the scenes.

Ek Balam

At the ruins of Ek’ Balam– a true Indiana Jones moment…

Before I left on the trip I’d been writing what I thought was going to be a mystery with my character, Kate Jones. This trip was supposed to be for researching a future novel. But Mexico changed all that.

And, as I’ve learned, you don’t argue with Mexico.

So, my mystery turned into a full-on thriller about the ruthless drug cartels that have destabilized so much of that country. Since I’m a novelist and basically lie for a living, I made up a group of off the grid commandos working deep in the jungle, fighting the cartels. Little did I know at the time, but groups of locals had steadily begun taking up arms against the cartels. Some of these groups have been backed/trained by the CIA and/or the DEA, as well as the Mexican government. Some continue to operate clandestinely. Many are now being hunted by the cartels, and the number of people from several ‘hot’ areas in Mexico who are requesting asylum in the United States has skyrocketed. Although there are still several places deemed by the State Department as safe to travel in Mexico, obviously, there are some areas you should avoid. Driving through Sonora and Sinaloa in an old jeep in the middle of a scathing hot September would be one of them 🙂

El Castillo

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Back to the trip: in the book, I gave one of the drug cartels Kate ends up fighting against the name of El Castillo, which is the name of one of the main structures at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the pyramid after someone fell to their death a few years back, but it’s still mighty impressive to look at.

There’s a scene where Kate stumbles upon an undiscovered Maya site (of which there are said to be hundreds in Mexico and Guatemala) which had a cenote, or fresh water spring hidden beneath decades of jungle growth.

photo of jungle

It’s a jungle out there…

If you look closely, you’ll see an ancient wall underneath all that vegetation…

photo of hacienda

Hacienda

While inland, I stayed at a historic hacienda built on top of an ancient Maya site by the Spaniards in 1523. These Spaniards went so far as to use the stones of a Maya temple for its walls (the hacienda is now run as an eco-tourism resort managed by Maya). In Yucatan Dead, Kate is kidnapped and taken to a hacienda deep in the jungle to meet her nemesis, Roberto Salazar. The description of the place grew from my experience while at the hacienda, and my jumping off point was the entrance (note the brick wall–these were ancient Maya building materials, most likely from the temple that had stood there centuries before).

Hands-down, my favorite places were the ancient Maya archaeological sites of Ek’ Balam and Coba (Chichen Itza and Tulum were pretty fantastic, too, but sooo crowded, it was hard to get a good feel for them). The showdown between Kate and Salazar takes place at a fictitious Maya site that I based on a combination of them all. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of Ek’ Balam, one of the most recently discovered sites on the peninsula (yes, those are my hiking shoes):

photo of Ek' Balam

The ruins at Ek’ Balam

The next picture is where I got the idea for the entrance to the temple at the top of the pyramid. This is called the Temple of the Jaguar, and is located on the tallest pyramid at the site. You can still climb this structure as well as the rest of the buildings, although I’m not sure how long that will be true. More and more people are discovering the site and the impact of all those tourists on the ancient structures is growing.

Photo of Temple of the Jaguar

Temple of the Jaguar (Ek’ Balam)

Roughly translated, Ek’ Balam means black jaguar, or bright star jaguar, and the big cat figures prominently in Yucatan Dead. In the photo above, the teeth along the bottom form the lower jaw, depicting the open mouth of a jaguar.

photo of carved jaguar

Carving of a jaguar

There are carvings of winged beings, some sculpted with a distinctly smaller arm, allowing for the Maya belief that people born with physical differences had special powers.

picture of winged beings at ek' balam

Nohoc Mul

Nohoc Mul

This picture is of the pyramid at Coba, which you can still climb (as of 2013). It’s the tallest pyramid on the peninsula (138 feet) and when you’re at the top you can see dozens of mounds in the distance that are thought to be undiscovered ancient Maya sites. The view from the top is fantastic, to say the least, and was one of the high points of the trip.

A structure with a small room sits at the top of the pyramid, with a carving on the outside depicting the Descending God, an upside down dude with a helmet. He’s also referred to as the Honey God, since honey was one of Coba’s main trade products. No one really knows who or what he represents, but that’s their best guess.

An interesting tidbit: many of these sites are connected by what are called sacbes, or raised paved roads (usually white since they were/are covered in limestone and stucco). One of them runs from Coba all the way to the coast and many were used as trade routes between communities.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

Another structure referred to in the showdown scene in Yucatan Dead resembles the Observatory at Chichen Itza, which is thought to have been used by the Maya for studying the cosmos.

And, of course what pictorial essay about Mexico would be complete without the obligatory Caribbean beach shot?

photo of beach at Tulum

Beach at Tulum

The Yucatan Peninsula was one of the most intriguing places I’ve been to and I plan to re-visit the area. It’s relatively safe, although you still need to be on the lookout for the ubiquitous gas station pumping scams and slow-moving farm machinery. Cartel violence has been reported just outside of Cancun, but is miniscule compared to other places in Mexico so don’t worry unnecessarily about going. Victims are generally related to the cartels in some way, either by being in the business or knowing someone in the business. Don’t take stupid chances like walking alone at night, or going into a dangerous area alone (just like when you go anywhere new). Otherwise, the Mexican people are warm and welcoming folks, and will treat you well if you treat them the same. Mexico is a fabulous country to visit and has many, many faces. I guarantee if you keep an open mind, you’ll enjoy what it has to offer.

Author sitting next to Hacienda arch


Storytelling, Travel & Nature

Photo of Petroglyph Trail

Petroglyph Trail

Recently I hiked to one of my favorite places in Arizona: Petroglyph Trail in Gold Canyon, outside of Phoenix. It’s a fairly easy hike and it gets you into the desert quickly—always a plus when you only have so much time. I tend to prefer hikes that are scenic the whole way and provide a good payoff at the end, and Petroglyph delivers.

Pools

Pools

The payoff I’m referring to is a pair of cascading pools surrounded by massive granite boulders covered in the art of the ancient world: petroglyphs. As soon as you crest the small ridge you notice the clear water beckoning you to take a dip, but what really makes the hike worthwhile are the figures carved and painted into the rock by long-ago hands. It’s easy to imagine storytellers as they entertained a rapt audience by reenacting legends handed down through generations. Dangerous hunts and thrilling encounters with spirit animals or other tribes were all fodder for these ancient bards.

As a writer, I’m honored to be one of many to carry on the storytelling tradition. Human beings have done this since the beginning of our time here, whether for education or entertainment, and will continue to do so long after you and I are gone. For me, this thought places life and all of its detours and false starts into proper perspective, giving me a longer view of things, and is one of the main reasons I travel. Life looks different when you experience it from another angle. Fresh ideas become more abundant and my dreams are often more vivid when I’m away from business as usual.

Picture of petroglyph

Petroglyph

All of this replenishes the well, so to speak, and helps me bring a different perspective to the craft of writing. For me, being close to nature does more for my mood than a week at a luxury spa (although I certainly wouldn’t turn it down). I envy the ancient storytellers their connection to the wild, and enjoy imagining the evenings they performed, campfires blazing, children watching in awe, the convivial banter between attendees…

With a scene so evocative, I may just have to sit down and write…

More petroglyphs


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