Thursday, April 23, 2009


Best birthday gift ever?

Three days on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i with my sweetie.

I'd never been to Hawaii before. My sweetie has, but only to Honolulu and Maui. Moloka'i is one of the smaller islands--38 miles long by 10 miles wide--and has about 7000 residents. No stoplights anywhere. One small town. Lots of pickup trucks. Anybody looking for the hustle and bustle of a tourist resort won't find it. But if you want peaceful, rural, and unbelievably beautiful--which we did--well, that's Moloka'i. People we met there said, "We don't want to be another Maui." And they mean it. The residents of Moloka'i have fought off development for decades...most recently, a proposed luxury home development on their southwestern shore. They want to keep Moloka'i, Moloka'i. A picture being worth a thousand words, and all that, you can see why we hope they continue to succeed.

This is Papohaku Beach. Three miles long, one of Hawaii's longest beaches. And in the middle of a weekday afternoon, we were the only ones there. It was still too early in the spring for swimming--the sea was way too rough--but it was gorgeous. One weird thing, though: look at how clean that sand is! In Oregon and California, we're used to kelp, driftwood, the occasional dead crab...but none of that on Papohaku. No idea why, but it was amazing.

A few miles away we found Kapukahehu Beach (aka Dixie Maru Beach) and its calm cove waters. Perfect for the likes of me, who can't see six inches ahead--literally--and therefore routinely get knocked over by waves. (I made a lousy Californian.) This was the most crowded place we experienced during our stay...all of about ten people sharing the sun, sand and warm water. I'm not much into sunbathing (not only severely myopic, but also melanin-challenged--yeah, I made a really lousy Californian) but yeah, this was bliss.

Driving the southern coast highway to the eastern tip of the island, we passed a sign warning us of a nene crossing. Nenes are the Hawaiian state bird, and endangered; only about 800 still survive on all the islands. A mile or so later, we came across a group of nenes, and sure enough--they were crossing the road. Now that's an accurate sign.

Looking from the rocky Halawa beach deep inland to the Halawa Valley and one of its waterfalls. Halawa Valley was the location of one of the earliest known settlements in all of Hawaii.
Kalaupapa Peninsula, on the northern shore. This is where Hawaii's famous leper colony is situated. Beginning in the 1860s, people in the Hawaiian islands diagnosed with Hansen's disease (leprosy) were taken away involuntarily from their families and quarantined here. For much of the colony's history, patients were kept on this almost inaccessible peninsula, in virtual prison, for the rest of their lives.
There's a daily tour of the colony, and we were eager to go. But getting to the tour, we learned, is a whole adventure in itself. Even today, the only land access is a 3-mile trail that drops 1700 feet from the top of a sea cliff down 26 switchbacks to the peninsula below. (Did I mention that Moloka'i has the highest sea cliffs in the world?) Two ways to tackle the trail: 1) saddle up with Moloka'i Mule Ride, or 2) hoof it on our own two feet. Since we're idiots, it didn't occur to us to reserve mule saddles in advance. So we showed up at the trailhead early in the morning, got our state permits (required to enter the peninsula), and started hiking before the four-leggeds were on the move.

A section of the cliff trail. This particular bit has a railing; much of the trail doesn't. And yeah, the ocean at the bottom is as clear as it looks. Absolutely spectacular.

A view of the sea cliff and part of the trail cutting across it.

St. Philomena was the first church built by Father Damien, a Belgian priest who ministered to the colony for sixteen years. He didn't just give sermons; he dressed patients' sores, built houses and two churches, and lived and worked alongside the banished outcasts of Kalaupapa until his own death from leprosy in 1889. Father Damien will be canonized as a Catholic saint in a ceremony on Kalaupapa peninsula on October 11, 2009. Our tour guide told us, in what I think is an understatement: "That will be a big day on Moloka'i."

A view of the sea cliffs from the Kalaupapa peninsula.

The cottage where we stayed. Just the most beautiful, welcoming place. From it, we could see the south shore, the islands of Maui and Lanai and--most exciting of all--whales spouting in the ocean between.
The view from our cottage, our last morning on Moloka'i: a rainbow over Maui.
And then: back home, far too soon.
Mahalo, Moloka'i, for reminding us to take it slow.

The resident goofballs. Yeah, we missed 'em.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

All A Writer Needs Is A Little Freedom

All over everywhere, folks are squeeing about Freedom. Apparently, this is a computer program you download from the internet that gives you freedom from...

(wait for it)

...the internet.

Freedom from checking your email every few minutes. Freedom from checking the comment trails on your favorite blogs. Freedom from Twitter, Facebook, your book's ranking...

not that I ever look at my books...umm...hardly ever, I mean...*cough* short: Freedom to do some actual work. The way Freedom works is, you set it for a specified time and during that time, the program prevents you from accessing the internet for any reason--even to check March Madness results (Cher bracket) on Go Fug Yourself. You can't argue with can't reason with it. It knows no mercy.

If that's not a writer's godsend, I don't know what is. It's just too easy, when hitting a bump in the fifth circle of hell known as the First Draft, to say I must know, at this very instant, how to say "hurry up" in French! Before I even know it, Google is activated and I'm knee-deep in French-to-English translation sites. And then I remember that I wanted to know what sort of fabric is crepe, exactly, and by the way, wasn't The Road with Viggo Mortensen supposed to come out last November? Where hast ye been, Viggo? And then...

No! No more! Where do I get this Freedom? I cried, cursor poised, ready to click through to my deliverance. And then I saw the fine print. (Why, why is there always fine print?)

Freedom is for Macs only.

*foam quietly at mouth for a moment*

Fine. Maybe it's just that Mac users don't have the self-discipline that we PC-ers do. So yesterday, I devised a little Freedom of my own: I disconnected my laptop from the internet. (I was surprised at how long I hesitated before clicking "disconnect." As if the mouse was a cleaver held over my sole supply of oxygen.) Every hour and a half, I allowed myself ten minutes surf time. (Okay, fifteen. And once was thirty minutes, but that was lunch.) Overall, I was pretty pleased with myself. And today?

Mm. Well. But look: the 2009 Go Fug Yourself March Madness champion, with video!

And cute cats!

And...and...Aarghh! I can't make it stop! Fred Stutzman, savior of Mac users, hear us! Are we not also helpless in the face of a strong wireless signal? Do we not also have work to be done? Where's our PC Freedom?!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Chasing the Dragon

I once worked with a heroin addict (clean for many years, but he taught me that to say "former addict" is incorrect) who told me that the first experience of heroin is the best. Junkies, he said, are always chasing that ephemeral first time, which will never occur again.

Writing is like that. The first time I hit the zone--that state in which a scene unfurls seemingly with no effort, in which the characters take on life and act with no regard for the author's preconceived ideas, the state in which (as one author once put it) the writer seems to be taking dictation from God himself--I was hooked. Entirely and forever. That first experience was long before I began writing novels, long before I could reliably write even two pages a week for my writing class. But from that day to this, every time I sit down at the computer, I hope that lightning will strike.

It usually doesn’t. But the promise of it always brings me back. Because unlike heroin, the first time for writers is not the only time. Who knows what the zone really is--self hypnosis? Endorphin rush? Whatever brain chemistry is percolating (biologist geek that I am, I'm certain that some physiologic process is involved) the zone is, for me, one of the strongest lures of writing.

This is how I chase the writing dragon: Unfold the scene, starting with the light. I read that once in an author interview, although I can't remember who--Anita Shreve, maybe. Imagine the light in the scene first, she said. How bright it is, where it’s coming from.

Then the sounds. Scents. The touch of upholstery, the humidity in the air. See the characters, set them moving, set them talking. Set a spark, see if it catches. Get it all down. If the zone starts rockin', hallelujah and roll with it. If not, then slog on. The dragon waits to be caught...

...if not today, then surely tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Tough Times Call for Tough (Book) Folks

From today's Shelf Awareness, a daily booksellers' newsletter, comes this report on a new method of bookselling designed for these hard financial times:

"…Craig Wilkins of Best of All Possible Bookshops has an intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level: smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.

Wilkins said he realized last summer, as the economy began to slide, that his problem as a bookseller was "the damned readers. They weren't listening to me and even when they came to the bookshop, they often slipped out with no purchase."

Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. "Essentially, I make them eat their words," Wilkins said. "We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books."

And if his customers think they can avoid all this by simply not coming to the shop, Wilkins has a little news flash for them. "I know where they live and I have a van," he said... "We go to their houses just like Amazon and make them buy books, but with the added incentive of actually being there in person so they have to look us in the eye…"

I was fortunate enough to be in his bookstore during one of these smashmouth handselling sessions recently. A customer entered, and instead of the traditional greeting ("Good morning; may I help?"), Wilkins moved aggressively from behind the counter and rushed the newcomer with an all-out blitz, reaching his foe as the customer plucked a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk from a Staff Picks display.

"You don't deserve that book!" Wilkins screamed, snatching it away.

"Why not?" the customer asked timidly, looking for an escape route. But Wilkins had him cornered.

"You aren't smart enough, pal."

"But I want to read this book. I do!"

Now that Wilkins had his opponent caught up in the game, he went for the literary kill. Holding Snow just beyond the customer's reach, he said, "If you want to read this, you're going to have to buy five books by midlist authors, too."


"Because I said so and because if you're smart enough to read Pamuk, you're too smart to ignore these other books. Deal?"

"Deal." There was surrender in the customer's eyes, but also, oddly, pleasure. Was that the thrill of defeat?

Wilkins observed that while bookstore sales have slumped nationwide during the recession, his have actually held steady. Not one to be complacent, however, he recently sent out a threatening e-mail newsletter warning that if he doesn't see an uptick of at least 10% by the end of April, he will be making more house calls.

I asked Wilkins if he had any words of wisdom for prospective smashmouth booksellers, and he shared his basic, primal philosophy: "Our backs are to the shelf. We have to take this one book at a time. Reading isn't everything; it's the only thing."

At last, the world of bookselling has found its hero. And if you believe that, my dear...

...check the date. And then head over to Shelf Awareness for another April 1 story: the government bailout of the publishing industry.