Our 3rd day in Costa Rica, we got up at 5:30 for the River Safari. Circadian rhythm-wise, we were still on home time, where it was 3:30. In the morning. We are not morning people. Although Nadja does better than me when there’s wildlife in the offing. She drove us to the boat launch at the mouth of the two local rivers, Rio Nosara and Rio Montana, and I sat quietly in the passenger seat and muttered to myself about coffee. The River Safari is an early-morning birdwatching tour run by the charming Leroy and Kirsten, two of the many German expatriates living in the area. Leroy handed us into his boat, distributed binoculars and laminated photo cards of the local birds with captions in English, German and Spanish, and for the next two hours he and Kirsten pointed out which sticks and leaves were actually iguanas and herons.

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Baby iguana

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Rio Nosara

That was the day I realized how valuable it was to have a guide. We could have walked beside the river and never seen the rare boat-billed heron one layer back in the forest, and we might have noticed the “iguana kindergarten” of bright green babies on the bank, but would never have seen the pair of mature iguanas lying in a tree, all tree-colored. We could not have explored the mangrove forest except by boat. But the highlight was the tiger heron mating dance. Here’s an idea of what that looks like.

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Tiger herons

We repaired to the upscale La Garta Lodge for coffee (finally!), and stared at the astonishing view of Playa Ostional down the cliff until we had worn out our welcome.

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Playa Ostional

We had discovered by now that the heat was overwhelming, so we had developed a strategy of hurrying between bodies of water we could submerse ourselves in or public places with strong ceiling fans. There’s no such thing as “indoors” here, at least not for restaurants. We lingered over smoothies at Robin’s in downtown Guiones, spent a few precious seconds of relief in the freezing air of the sealed ATM chamber at the bank, and went to Spanish class to enjoy the air conditioning.

That afternoon I read We Were Not the Enemy by Heidi Gurcke Donald. A friend had loaned it to Nadja, and she brought it along and read it first. The book chronicles the lives of a German family who lived in Costa Rica during the early 20th century and who were interned in Texas by the US government during WWII. Yes: Germans, living in Costa Rica, interned by the US. Like the rest of us, I knew about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast. I had heard about POW camps in the US for German prisoners. But the internment of German families was news to me.

It’s a slim little book, barely 100 pages. The narrator was a young child during the internment and tells the story mainly through her mother’s eyes — a woman from California who married a man from Germany and moved with him to San Jose, Costa Rica, in the 1930s. It’s a small slice of a much larger history, but it’s well told, and the strength of the story is its small focus: you get a world of understanding in the day to day details of a North American woman raising young children first as a self-described “pioneer” in Central America, and then on a transport ship to the US in cramped and dangerously unsanitary conditions, and then in a prison camp.

I found the author’s seeming naivete about the US government strangely endearing. I’ve been pretty skeptical all my life of US foreign policy and civil rights. I knew, for example, that US intelligence agencies had been operating in Central America since the mid-twentieth century to protect US corporate interests under the filmy disguise of preventing the growing Latin American socialist movements from reaching the US. It came as no big surprise to learn that the US pushed Costa Rica to freeze the assets of German business owners during WWII with the specific goal of eliminating competition for US corporations operating there. The author did seem surprised. But We Were Not the Enemy is a book about the impact on everyday human lives of those policies, and it’s deeply affecting.

We went to Costa Rica in January! Sorry it took me until now to post about the trip. Rather than bore you with our first day there, which was mainly traveling for 21 hours, missing our flight to Nosara and driving a rental car on death-defying roads in utter darkness to get to the coast, I thought I’d just start off on Day 2. Day 2 was pretty much perfect.

Palm tree outside our window

The palm tree outside our window

The birds of the jungle woke us up at first light, and the howler monkeys. We didn’t actually get a monkey sighting for a few days, but you could hear them screaming in the palm trees above our room. Then the construction started shortly after first light. Nosara is in the throes of a construction boom, and a lot of new housing and tourist sites are just barely in the early stages of digging or framing. The sounds here all day are power tools, hammering, and the constant growl of generators. Then there are the trucks and motorcycles. The roads all over Costa Rica are notoriously awful, and in Nosara they’re all unpaved, unbelievably dusty (it’s the dry season), and more pothole than flat surface. Add that to the (to an American) reckless driving that seems universally encouraged, and you find yourself taking your life into your hands every time you cross the road to the Mini Super Delicias Del Mundo corner store for a popsicle.

We had to be at the Nosara Spanish Institute at 7:00 AM our first day there for placement, so we got up with the bird-and-monkey alarm. Our room at the Kaya Sol Surf Hotel was all tropical comfort: screens and wooden blinds on the windows, furniture made of local woods, cool tile floor, walls in the exact shades of deep spearmint and blinding fuschia that I wore to the 7th Grade Spring Fling in 1987. There was no hot water, but there was no AC either, just a ceiling fan, so a cold shower was actually a welcome relief from the heat.

Our room, decorated by laundry

Our room, decorated by laundry

After inevitably getting lost in the string of tiny commercial districts and rural roads surrounded by jungle that make up the Nosara area, we found ourselves at the language school. Super friendly Marco chatted to us in Spanish and pretended he understood our fumbling answers. We each spent 90 seconds with an instructor and were informed that we would be in class at 1:00 that day. Then Marco won me over forever by making coffee. The Tico way of brewing coffee is with a hanging reusable filter suspended over, in this case, an aluminum pitcher. Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s main modern claims to fame, and this was some of the finest I’ve ever tasted.

We left the school to have breakfast at the Cafe de Paris nearby, where we tried out the national breakfast dish, gallo pinto. It’s a big scoop of red beans and rice with mild spices. We got it with eggs and local fruit and sat watching a magpie jay preening on the back of someone’s chair, and then we went to the beach until class time. Playa Guiones, the beach nearest to our hotel, was full of surfers and locals selling pottery. I tried out my new rash guard and board shorts in the water, hoping no one would think that my wearing a surf costume meant I knew how to surf, and then we sat in the skimpy shade of a palm tree and Nadja tried out her new camera.

Playa Guiones

Playa Guiones

Spanish class was in an airy classroom which soon turned out to be our favorite place in Nosara because it had actual air conditioning.  Rita, our instructor, plunged us right into immersion-style learning and had the 4 of us in class making fools of ourselves trying to answer her questions right away. It was a very good system of learning. I’ve wanted to improve my terrible Spanish forever, and one of the big appeals of Costa Rica as our destination was all the opportunities for language study here.

Nosara Spanish Institute

Nosara Spanish Institute

We spent the heat of the afternoon sitting by the pretty but scummy pool at the Kaya Sol, and had a nice dinner of Thai lettuce wraps at the Guilded Iguana across the road. Then we took the foam futon off the couch in our room and set it on top of the concrete slab of a mattress in the bedroom and slept long vacation sleep.

Here’s the link to my story in Toasted Cheese.

The photo they used is perfect. I really did meet a girl like Edwina in a playground in western Ireland, and the place really did look exactly like that.

Well, it does not rain. It pours.

My book Pretty Peg is going to be published!

I got an email from Harmony Ink Press a few days ago with an offer. I had some seconds of profound shock, then called my girl, who probably thought I was having a medical emergency because we never call, we only text. Also because I was out of breath and unable to form a sentence.

It will be released this summer. I will be happy dancing until then.

My story Edwina is going to be in the March issue of Toasted Cheese!

More on making that CD –

Our first recording session was epic. That was probably the day we got the most tracks down, since Douglass Closson was playing guitar parts on so many songs. I even played guitar on a couple songs that day – definitely my first try at that game.

It was a warm Sunday in April. I wore my lucky Roots hoodie, which was the first thing to go when I got into that toasty little room. James Boblak’s operation, Artspoke Studio, is a compact little building obviously built by hobbits, sandwiched between regular-sized buildings in downtown Berkeley. And with all that equipment plugged in, that cozy space gets mighty warm. I won’t try to go into the types of microphones James used, since other people speak gear so fluently and I don’t, but he had the soundproof room all set up for Doug. There was small talk about the donkey jawbone, which James keeps in there for a Peruvian (James? Peruvian?) band who use it for percussion. He warned me to be prepared if I ever bring in a guest with a dog. Something about being responsible for finding a replacement donkey.

Doug gamely installed himself on the puffy piano bench, removed the car keys and other “auxiliary percussion” from his pockets like the pro he is, and knocked out most of our tracks in one or two takes. I’m a big fan of this guy’s playing. He brings the right kind of drive to a song that needs it, and that’s the perfect foil for my soprano singing. I like some muscle in a song, but I just don’t have the right kind of voice for muscle. He worked out terrific leads on some of the songs, which meant I got to play rhythm. That was a healthy challenge for me, since I’d been playing the same 3 chords at the same level of incompetence for my whole life until I spent the last year finally taking lessons and practicing seriously. Like you’d expect, now I play like someone who’s been playing for one year. James assured me that he can make my playing disappear in the mix.

I wish I could have been able to concentrate on Doug’s playing more that day, but the best way to get his tracks down was for me to sing the vocal outside the soundproof room for him to hear it in his headphones. So I stood behind James and the consoles he apparently lifted from Chief O’Brien’s transporter room, and sang along. Now that’s a whole different experience than being in the room with your bandmates. I’m big on communication with whoever I’m playing with – eye contact is great, and I’ve had my foot stepped on more than once when someone needed my attention – so it’s disorienting at first to have nothing to rely on but your headphones. I could see Doug through a little pane of glass, sort of, but there was glare and he was, like the pro he is, looking at his charts.

I’ve heard people say countless times that recording is all about sound. Seems obvious, until you break it down. There’s no extra communication with the audience when they’re listening to your CD. You can’t smile at them or set the mood by telling a story. Any emotion or nuance you’d put into your performance, it all has to go into their ears. You can’t do ESP with the band either, unless you’re recording live (that’s where everyone plays together). Our approach was tracked instead (one instrument gets recorded at a time).

So my lesson for that first recording session? I rely on my eyes a lot to play music: looking at whoever else is playing, looking at whoever’s listening. Concentrating just on what was coming through my headphones, that took some getting used to.

You probably already know about Navajo Star Wars, but I heard about it yesterday when KPFA’s Bay Native Circle interviewed one of the actors.

From Indian Country Today:

The Navajo Nation Museum is working wth Deluxe Studios and Lucasfilm to produce the adaptation, and when it happens it will be the realization of a three year quest by museum director Manuelito Wheeler. Wheeler’s desire to have a supremely popular film like Star Wars translated into Navajo is culturally motivated. “By preserving the Navajo language and encouraging Navajo youth to learn their language, we will also be preserving Navajo culture,” Wheeler told the Navajo Times.

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/04/26/star-wars-be-translated-navajo-lukes-and-leias-needed-149051


Here’s a little on the casting process:

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a CD for the past while. All I had done before in the way of recording was demos with various bands, which was always enjoyable, but this was my first venture into anything that would have my name on the cover. Anything with a cover, for that matter. So I thought I’d post about some of my gosh-wow-is-that-how-you-do-it experiences of making an album.

I started with a list of 12 songs that I thought went together and fit my general vision for the album. I could sum up the vision as Irish, Scottish and American folk songs I like, played with friends. Going into it, I already had a powerful lean toward old songs as opposed to contemporary ones (about half the songs I ended up using are Child Ballads, even though I didn’t set out to do a C.B. project on purpose and I didn’t even know The Wind and Rain was a C.B.), and being a singer, I gravitate toward weepers until sternly talked to. On that, I tried to rein myself in. I picked keys, worked on the vocals, did initial arrangements, and made charts to share with the people I was planning to ask to play with me. I was sure I’d done the hard work of making the song decisions, and all I had to do now was practice a lot.

I probably ended up using about 5 songs from that original list. So that was my first lesson: you’re not as sure as you think, smarty pants.

Some songs didn’t pass the test of friends liking them. That was important, because I felt committed to having everyone who played on the album be a friend, and I wanted it to be a good experience for them, or at least for them not to store their copy of the CD in the shredder or their parakeet cage.

Some songs I just didn’t like the sound of myself on, when I used my iPod mic to record myself at home. I could go on for days about what I hate about my singing voice, but the main problem with me and folk music is that sometime in my 20s it seemed like a good idea to get a whole pile of classical voice training. And now, I didn’t want to sound like an opera singer on a Gillian Welch song. So, out the window went some of my picks.

I almost gave up on Harvest Gypsies, a terrific song by Boo Hewerdine that I learned from a recording by Kris Drever. I thought I was reasonably bright about transcribing rhythm, but I just could not put what Kris did on paper. I finally deconstructed the poor song and made all the phrases the same length. What the hell, I wasn’t in this to be like Kris Drever, whose album Black Water I bought 6 years ago on my honeymoon and have never taken out of the car CD player except to put it in my iTunes. It’s perfect. So, the opposite of anything I could do. But some demon was driving me to make this CD even if it was going to end up in that shredder/birdcage future home.

Will You Miss Me made it all the way to a rough mix before I admitted defeat. It’s a great song, but even more than my other picks, I just didn’t think I was bringing anything fresh to it. I’m not Ralph Stanley or the Carter Family, and unlike not being Kris Drever, that really did stop me this time.

And, in a surprise even to me, I wrote 2 songs that went on the album. I’ve never thought of myself as a songwriter – my form is more novel-y, plus the odd long email, plus that detour into sonnets to keep myself sane during staff meetings at a past job – but once I had the first song, it felt like something I wanted to keep, even try again at.

The final song list (OK, I’m 99% sure this is the final song list now that it’s all been recorded):

Eppie Morrie
I Once Loved a Lass
Bonnie Farday
The Newry Highwayman
Harvest Gypsies
The Wind & Rain
Pretty Saro
Rivers (by me)
The Mermaid
The Last Five O’Clock (by me)

Next time: into the studio!

There’s still a day and a bit to go, but I’m not likely to finish any of the books I’ve started reading by tomorrow night, so I thought I’d post the ones I read in 2013. There was some re-reading of beloved ones that I knew would take me to the escape destination I needed. There was a lot of YA speculative genre reading. There were several I started and haven’t finished, including Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi, The Weaver and the Factory Maid by Deborah Grabien, and the inevitable re-read of most of Jane Austen and Dorothy Sayers that happens whenever depression overwhelms me. And there’s the ongoing, slow reading of some nonfiction, including A History of Ireland by Malachy McCourt, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, and that travel guide to Costa Rica by James Kaiser that I’m going to need to have absorbed Very Soon Indeed. And my Emily Dickinson collection, but you can’t ever really say you “finish” reading poetry. There was also a lot of short fiction I read on the web and in anthologies, plus the work of my writing group, which is such an ace privilege to be there for the making of.

My book list for 2013:

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson

The Hotel Under the Sand – Kage Baker

Territory — Emma Bull

Bones of the Moon – Jonathan Carroll

Telegraph Avenue — Michael Chabon

Catching Fire — Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay — Suzanne Collins

Homeland — Cory Doctorow

Pirate Cinema — Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — Cory Doctorow

Bossypants – Tina Fey

Slow River – Nicola Griffith

Skeleton Man – Tony Hillerman

The Drowning Girl — Caitlin Kiernan

The Lathe of Heaven — Ursula LeGuin

A Feast for Crows — George RR Martin

Solstice Wood – Patricia McKillip

Curse of the Wolf Girl – Martin Millar

Lonely Werewolf Girl – Martin Millar

The Body in the Kelp — Katherine Hall Page

Fuzzy Nation — John  Scalzi

Redshirts — John Scalzi

Old Man’s War — John Scalzi

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek – Michelle Tea

The Magic Stone — Sue Ullstein

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese

Uglies — Scott Westerfeld


Look at my pretty new baby Taylor!


Nadja decided that A) a small guitar would be good for trips and B) it was Christmas, so the time was right, despite how C) I was planning to practice for another 5 years before there was any serious shopping for a nicer guitar. Love.



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