You Just Never Know

clematis_niobeI had another post ready to go, but in light of what’s happened, that one will have to wait.

I was talking to my mom today (Sunday) when another call came on her line—my aunt with news. My uncle (my mom’s younger brother and my aunt’s older brother) had passed out in his backyard. I talked to my dad while Mom called various siblings on her cell phone to gain more information. We soon found out that my uncle had had a massive heart attack.

As soon as I hung up, I texted my younger brother and sister-in-law to let them know what was going on. My sister-in-law called five minutes later. While we talked, another call came on her line. This time, it was Mom with news no one wants to hear: my uncle had died.

My brother, sister-in-law, and I quickly drove to my aunt’s (about an hour away), where we found her in shock. She kept saying, “I can’t believe this. We just went to the doctor. He had a clean bill of health. I just can’t believe this.” Over and over.

My uncle had gone out to mow the lawn. But when my aunt didn’t hear the lawn mower, she took a look out back and saw him lying on the grass. She said he looked as if he were resting. After screaming his name, she called 911 as she tried to revive him. An ambulance arrived within five minutes. But by the time they arrived at the nearest hospital, my uncle was dead.

We’re all a bit numb now. My uncle was only eight years older than me, my mom being the oldest in her large family. And as far as we knew, he had no history of heart disease. Our only consolation is that he didn’t suffer. It all happened so quickly.

You just never know when life will throw you a curve like that. All of the silly squabbling our family has engaged in over the years seems totally foolish now. We wasted so much precious time arguing.

I wasn’t going to write anything, because my heart is heavy right now. But I felt like I had to write this post to say that life is too short for petty arguments or misunderstandings people are too stubborn or prideful to clear up. At a funeral, you can’t clear those things up. It’s too late then.

There’s no guarantee that tomorrow is yours to have. But you have today. And today, you can do a lot to make amends, to tell someone you love him or her. Please don’t assume you have all the time in the world. I made that assumption in regard to my uncle. And now I have his funeral to attend.

Clematis from botanicalgarden.ubc.ca.

when the way is switchbacks

L. Marie:

I can definitely relate to this, having taken on another project. And I certainly couldn’t have said it better.

Originally posted on Ellar Out Loud:

Lately I’ve been thinking about Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: read it, watch it, absorb it), and particularly the portion where he talks about continually moving towards the mountain. Part of that is likely because Joe McGee posted not so long ago about that same section of the speech, and part of it is because I’ve been pondering my own mountain and path.

As Joe summarizes,

In Gaiman’s speech, he explains that he imagined where he wanted to be (an author, making good books, able to make a living from his stories, etc.) was a mountain. A distant mountain. It was his goal…He explains that he said no to writing jobs (editorial, magazines, etc.) that might have paid more money, because at the time it would have taken him away from the mountain.

Now, the mountain and the road towards it…

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A Post About . . . “Nothin’ ”

As I dashed off to church, mulling over what to post (besides the announcement of the winner of Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen—that’ll come later in the post), the premise of Seinfeld came to mind. Remember that show? It was “a show about nothing” or more aptly, the “mundane aspects of everyday life.” (See Wikipedia.) And here’s something else you might find coincidental: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is on the cover of the latest issue of Northwestern University’s alumni magazine. If you’ve never seen Seinfeld, you might wonder what connection she has to it. Well, she was a costar. She has her own show nowadays—Veep.

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I struggled with what to post, as I’ve done many times lately, because of thoughts plaguing me like, If I don’t yet have a published book to promote, a beautifully written poem like the ones Andy over at City Jackdaw produces, or a hilarious Punchy Lands report (ala Professor VJ Duke), or if I haven’t been on an exciting trip recently or a glorious walking tour like the ones Restless Jo posts so eloquently about, will anyone want to read what I write? But finally on that drive, I realized I’d fallen into a trap—the same trap I was in several years ago when I was about to turn down an invitation to participate in career day at an elementary school in Chicago. Why was I going to turn it down? Because I didn’t think I was “successful” enough to talk to the eighth graders. I wasn’t sure they’d want to hear that I had more writing failures than successes.

As I realized the mindset I’d fallen into—the belief that I had “nothing” to say—the thought of Seinfeld was a revelation. For a show that purported to be about “nothing,” it managed to remain on the air for almost a decade. And why not? It was really a show about life. There’s always something to say, if you’re still breathing.

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Thinking about Seinfeld helped me realize my tendency to disparage my own life—to think that a “good” life (or at least one worth posting about) boiled down to what I produced that others might deem successful or to places I’ve visited that others might view as worthy of interest. (Um, instead of traveling to Italy, France, or Nairobi, I went to Joann Fabrics today and bought some eyes with safety catches for the kittens I’m crocheting. Yeah, I walk on the wild side.)

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Package of eyes with safety catches and a photo of a head with the eyes in place. Why are safety catches necessary? Each catch keeps the eye in place and prevents a small child who bites through the fabric from swallowing the eye.

Lately, I’ve been taking for granted the simple things in life—fodder for many an episode of Seinfeld. Like today (Sunday). The humidity we’ve experienced for weeks is finally gone. The sun is out, and the temperature for much of the day has been around 81 degrees Fahrenheit. How marvelous without humidity. To celebrate, I scarfed down a scrumptious hot fudge sundae from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Maybe that’s not earth-shattering, front-page headline news. But it’s life—my life. And sometimes I need to be reminded that it’s worth celebrating. And so is yours.

Speaking of celebrating, I’m pleased to announce the winner of Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen.

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That winner is

Is

Is

Is

Lyn Miller-Lachmann!

Time to celebrate, Lyn! You know the drill. Comment below to confirm, and then email me your address.

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Gratuitous lip balm photo. Yes, this is an egg-shaped container.

My Cheating Heart

What a week! Here is the lineup: a curriculum deadline yesterday (two grades, which meant the Labor Day holiday was actually a day of labor for me); samples for two other projects also due yesterday and today; a friend’s arrival from Santa Ana, California, which resulted in breakfast and dinner out; and sundry appointments. Oh, and I’m also crocheting kittens for an upcoming baby shower. (We already know a girl is expected, hence the pink ears.)

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Yes, the kittens have large heads. That’s part of the pattern. And yes, I am reading Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens.

This week, I have felt like the proverbial rolling stone. Consequently, I’ve been away from the blog and other blogs for some days. Sorry about that, faithful followers and bloggers. I’ve barely had time to breathe, though I ingested a number of cookies. Each night this week I would fall into bed, still thinking of curriculum activities. Alas, I fell asleep even as I mulled them over.

Ever have a week like that? Amazingly, the more I’ve had to do, the more I was able to get done. Inertia didn’t have a chance with me this week—well, at least in the above areas. I can’t say that’s true of all areas in my life, though.

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I just wish I had had more time for my fiction writing. This week was all about producing curriculum. I have not written even one sentence of dialogue or description in several days. I feel like I’m cheating on my story by hanging out with nonfiction so much this week. Perhaps I should shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” as I walk down the street, because I’ve neglected my story. I miss it though. It’s been at the back of my mind, waiting to greet me like a faithful pup greets its master at the door. And brute that I am, I turn away each time, focusing my mind on something else. So, the little bit of story momentum I’d had awhile ago has slowed to a crawl. You might say inertia has hit there.

Oh, story! Forgive me for neglecting you! I wish I could say I’ll see you later on today, but I’ve got another full day of activities. But I’ll be thinking of you and a new chapter I need to add to you.

Interestingly enough, as I thought about this post, I happened to glance at a page in the October 2014 issue of American Girl magazine. It’s as if the writer knew what I’d been up to this week—flirting with nonfiction projects, cheater that I am. (And by nonfiction, I’m including the kittens project, since crocheting is clearly not fiction writing.) Alas, I cannot change my cheating ways, at least not until the new project and the kittens are done. But when they are, story, it will be me and you again.

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Inertia Man from thirdrailbowlingclub.blogspot.com.

Check This Out: Tiger Tail Soup

Ni hao and welcome to the blog, where my guest today is the awesome Nicki Chen, whom I met through the blog of that wonderful connector, Jill Weatherholt. Nicki’s here to talk about her novel, Tiger Tail Soup, published by Dog Ear Publising. After Nicki and I talk about her book, I’ll tell you about a giveaway.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nicki: I like to take walks, so where I live must be a good starting point for walks. I like to dance. Lacking a partner, I turn on the music and dance anyway. I have three daughters and three grandchildren—the youngest grandchild just started first grade; the oldest is a college sophomore. I spent twenty years in the Philippines and Vanuatu as an expat wife/trailing spouse.

El Space: Please tell us about your novel. What inspired you to tell this story?
Nicki: Tiger Tail Soup is the story of a Chinese woman caught up in war. It is set in southeastern China during the Japanese invasion and occupation. My late husband Eugene used to tell me stories about his childhood in China. I thought they were exotic and fascinating. I told him to write them down, but he didn’t. So after he died, I decided to write a novel about that time and include at least what I remembered of some of his stories.

The narrator of Tiger Tail Soup, An Lee, is a young wife and mother. As the novel opens, it’s the spring of 1938. She’s pregnant and wondering why her husband didn’t return from his business trip ten days earlier. Stepping out onto the balcony, she hears bombs exploding in the distance. When her husband finally appears, he has exchanged his suit and tie for the uniform of a Chinese soldier. During the next seven years, An Lee sees her husband again only twice. Left alone, it’s up to her to protect their children, her mother, and her mother-in-law.

For a few years their island, though surrounded by enemy forces, is spared a full-scale invasion, because of its status as an international treaty port. Then on December 7, 1941, the enemy launches a coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor and all the international enclaves in China. In a matter of minutes, the island of Kulangsu becomes occupied territory, and life for the family enters a new, more challenging phase.

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Kulangsu

El Space: What do you want readers to take away through this story?
Nicki: I hope the reader will take away a sense of possibility and hopefulness. We all face challenges and pain; we make mistakes and feel like giving up. But, like An Lee, we can survive and succeed. In a more general sense, I hope Tiger Tail Soup increases the reader’s empathy and understanding of other people. When we read a novel and imagine ourselves alive in another time and place, we escape the narrow confines of our own lives and become someone new.

El Space: What challenges have you faced on the road to publication?
Nicki: The first challenge was in knowing whether my novel was ready to send out into the world and in knowing how to write a good query letter. Finding an agent is such hard work!

But my biggest challenge was the agent I eventually found. She sent my book out to a few publishers, and the responses were positive, but no bites. So she suggested I do a serious revision. I spent a year on the revision and sent it back to her. It’s very good now, she said, but I don’t want to continue representing you. And, by the way, she added, no other agent will want to represent this book since it has already been shopped around, so you should put it away and write your second novel. Find an agent with your second novel and then later also publish the first. I took her advice and put Tiger Tail Soup away for a few years. But one of my daughters became impatient. “Just publish it,” she said. So I did.

El Space: Wow. What an ordeal, Nicki. I’m glad your book is out in the world despite that incident. You’re also a painter. What medium do you favor?
Nicki: When we lived in the Philippines, I studied Chinese brush painting for many years with Professor Chen Bing Sun. First I learned to paint plum blossoms, then bamboo, orchids, and chrysanthemums. Next, I graduated to animals: shrimp, fish, birds, horses, and tigers. After a few years, I did landscapes and people. I have a post that explains the process in more detail.

I also used to do batik painting, an art form that is more appropriate in a tropical country. I used to work in the carport. When you work with melted wax, it’s better to be outside so the fumes can escape. Batik is a reverse process. The artist applies wax to cloth where she wants the color or lack of color to be preserved. Then she dyes the cloth. When it dries, she applies more wax to preserve the new color and dyes the cloth again. Then she repeats the process for the next color.

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Batik paintings copyright © 2014 Nicki Chen

El Space: Quite lovely, Nicki! Also, you graduated from VCFA. What was it like traveling across the world to attend this school?
Nicki: When I studied at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was living in Port Vila, Vanuatu. If you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. It’s a small island nation in the South Pacific, not far from Fiji. So, as you can imagine, it was a long trip flying to Vermont twice a year. And whether it was summer or winter, the weather was always more extreme in Vermont. Vanuatu’s weather is perfect almost all year long. I would fly into Burlington, stay overnight in a B&B, and then catch a bus to Montpelier—which, by the way, looks just like a Christmas card in winter.

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Port Vila

Each residency was an exciting, jam-packed eleven days. Then I had to fly back to Vanuatu and get busy writing stories to send to my advisor. Since it was the early 1990s, no one did much of anything by email yet. If I wanted to get my packet to my advisor on time each month, I had to send it early. International postal mail from the South Pacific actually did deserve the name snail mail. Also, a computer breakdown could be quite a disaster in such an out-of-the-way place.

El Space: In many venues, the subject of diversity in books has arisen. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on this topic?
Nicki: I haven’t thought about the subject much. I suppose the best thing is to write what you want to write and then search for your audience. If you’re interested in the topic, someone else must be too. I feel that Tiger Tail Soup fills a hole in books about China. The book is set in Amoy—now known as Xiamen—and although Amoy and the surrounding countryside in Fujian Province is the ancestral home of most Southeast Asian Chinese, very little has been written about it.

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Fujian Province

El Space: What are you working on now?
Nicki: A novel set in Vanuatu—another fascinating, relatively unknown part of the world. My main character once again is a woman, but this time she’s a woman hoping to get pregnant.

Nicki, thanks so much for dropping by! You’re welcome, anytime!

Looking for Nicki? You can find her at her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Tiger Tail Soup can be found at Amazon. But one of you will win a copy of Tiger Tail Soup. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on Monday, September 8.

Fujian map from chinatouristmaps.com. Port Vila photo from Wikipedia. Kulangsu photo from wikisource.org.

Now, That’s Classic

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve consumed quite a few costume dramas, some of which are lengthy BBC productions like

Little Dorrit (2008)
Bleak House (2005)
Emma (1996)
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Northanger Abbey (2007)

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Northanger

You don’t have to be an English major to know that all are adaptations of classic novels by Charles Dickens (the first two) and Jane Austen (the last three). (Though I confess to having read all of the above when I was an undergraduate English/writing major.) I have another waiting in the wings—North and South, an adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, starring a pre-Thorin Oakenshield Richard Armitage. Whenever I’ve mentioned North and South to others, most of the people I talked to assumed I meant an adaptation of a book of the same title by an American author, John Jakes. No, I mean this:

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I see the gleam in your eyes, oh fans of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice—the six-hour A & E production featuring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. I have that as well.

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I experienced a bit of culture shock as I dragged myself out of nineteenth-century Britain back to the U.S. in 2014. Though I’ve seen all of these adaptations more than once, they still have the power to captivate. And my goodness, Andrew Davies has been quite the busy bee, having penned three of them, with the exception of Emma, the screenplay of which was written by Douglas McGrath, and Pride and Prejudice (2005), which was written by Deborah Moggach. However, he wrote the script for the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice and tons of other productions.

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Andrew Davies

Every once in awhile, I get a hankering for ‘em. Such works are pure escapist fiction for me, each with its share of joy and sorrow—some more heavily weighted on one side or the other, with a touch of romance in all. Even the tragic aspects are vastly entertaining, thanks to villains I love to despise and plucky heroes (male and female alike) who bear up mightily in pressure-cooker circumstances.

Some might view aspects of these stories as too black and white, particularly those of Dickens, who was fond of populating his novels with loathsome people like Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Smallweed in Bleak House or Rigaud in Little Dorrit, characters without a single redeeming quality. And Jane’s books include their share of unpleasant people as well, like Caroline Bingley (and her sister Louisa) in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Elton in Emma, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice). On the other side of the coin are Esther Summerson (Bleak House) and Jane Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)—characters who might be deemed too saintly or perfect. But with each side of the social divide so sharply delineated, black and white characters help emphasize the dichotomy.

While paragons like Esther Summerson and Jane Bennet don’t really draw me again and again to the books in which they reside, I can appreciate the parts they play and how different they are from other characters skillfully devised by Dickens and Austen, characters like the obsequious and ridiculous Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice or the equally ridiculous Mr. Guppy in Bleak House. (With a name like Guppy, a character can’t help being ridiculous.)

I wish my novel had a place for a character like Collins or Guppy. But both characters were painted with such broad comic brushstrokes that I fear neither would work with my other characters. Not that all lack a streak of ridiculousness. They come from me after all. :-D

Though some classic novels are avoided now because of the lack of diversity and outright racism in some (though not in the above novels), I still turn to the list above or their adaptations whenever I need a master class in character development and plotting. But mostly, I dive into them when I can’t afford to take a journey, but would like to get away from it all to a world where problems and plotlines are all neatly wrapped up in a reasonable amount of time.

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Gratuitous stuffed animal photo—my lion and his friend the dolphin

Pride and Prejudice movie poster from movieposter.com. Little Dorrit poster from cinemagia.ro. Northanger Abbey cover from movieberry.com. Emma from fanpop.com. Andrew Davies from BBC.com.

All Roads Lead to . . .

crossroadI worked with a guy who should have had his own version of Six Degrees of Separation. Every time I’d mention someone, he either knew that person or knew someone connected to that person. So, if I ever grew angry with my co-worker and wanted to vent, I had no one to talk to about him, because he’d eventually hear about it. I don’t dare mention his name, because you might know him.

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A six-degrees of separation flowchart

Know someone like that? If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction book, The Tipping Point, you know about connectors—people who have an innate ability to connect people to other people. (Read this if you want to know more about connectors.)

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I am probably the only connection-impaired person in a family of connectors. I’m usually the person who goes, “I saw What’s-his-name the other day. You know. He’s married to What’s-her-face.”

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This is me, sort of. Actually, it’s Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005). But I relate to the posture of standing alone, or at least standing in the wind trying to recall someone’s name.

Connectors know lots of people. My older brother was one of the most popular people at our high school. He’s always naming people he heard from recently. (To which I usually reply, “Oh yeah. I sorta remember him,” knowing that I’m drawing a blank.) My younger brother was popular at his university. Do you know how difficult it is to be popular at a university which boasts tens of thousands of people? His birthday parties are usually populated by at least 40 of his closest friends. Now, I’ve known my younger brother all of his life, but at a recent party he threw, there were people who came that I did not know.

My dad knows tons of people. My mom always manages to connect to people who know everyone. My parents are used to the connecting way of life, because they’re from large families with a combined total of over twenty siblings (though, sadly, several are dead now). My in-laws also know everyone. I remember being in a mall in Houston with my sister-in-law, only to have her run into someone she knew. (We don’t live in Texas by the way. You know you’re a connector when you bump into people you know while traveling.)

Many bloggers are connectors: Andra Watkins; Jill Weatherholt; K. L. Schwengel; Charles Yallowitz; Marylin Warner; Laura Sibson; Sharon Van Zandt; Lyn Miller-Lachmann; the Brickhousechick; T. K. MorinCeline Jeanjean; Mishka Jenkins; Sandra Nickel—just to name a few. And I have several classmates (besides Laura, Lyn, and Sandra, and Sharon) who are born connectors. Whenever I want to inquire about agents, publishers, marketing, or anything else, I head straight to them for advice.

We look to the connectors in our lives, especially when we need to network, don’t we? It’s nice to know someone who knows someone else trustworthy. Connectors seem to love to match you with people they know. Need your car fixed? They know the perfect place to take your little Yugo. (Remember those?) Need your roof fixed? They know the people you should avoid calling. The only awkward thing about some connectors is that they think they know your taste when sometimes they don’t. Like when I was blindsided at a dinner by a well-meaning connector who tried to match me up with someone who also did not understand that this was a matchmaking meal. Talk about awkward, especially since we had no interest in each other.

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A Yugo

Authors are the ultimate connectors in a way. If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, you know that in many of his books, he often reveals hidden connections between his characters. Then he adds a connector to connect the dots. Don’t believe me? Read Bleak House or see BBC’s adaptation of it. I won’t spoil the mystery for you.

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The challenge for an author comes with connecting characters in a noncontrived way—and by that I mean beyond shock value. Oh, I know. There’s something fun about the “Luke, I am your father” announcements. Have you explored the connections between your characters in ways that might surprise or delight a reader (or a viewer)? I’m reminded of a movie, Whisper of the Heart, written by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the main character, Shizuku, checks out library books and constantly finds the name of another character on the checkout cards. (This movie was made in the 90s, so checkout cards were used then.) He becomes an important connector for her. Knowing your characters’ back stories really helps. I’ve been a bit lazy in regard to back story with some of my characters. Some seem too isolated ala the Lizzie Bennet photo above. I’m trying to rectify that by providing more connecting points (i.e., interactions with friends, family, acquaintances, and enemies).

Connectors are a reminder of the richness of being in a community. I’m grateful for the threads like connectors that link us together.

Who are the connectors in your life?

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Gratuitous chicken photo

Crossroads photo from amersrour.blog.com. Six degrees diagram from commons.wikimedia.org. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet image from pinterest.com. Yugo and chicken photos from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads.