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Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #3 - Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This post, Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

On the day of the flight from Shanghai to Beijing we arrived at the airport and I sought out the wisdom of an Irishman – his red hair and trim suit in such contrast to all of the Mao blue. Did he have any suggestions of places to stay, I asked him, since our hotel adventure in Shanghai had been so taxing. He looked at us incredulously. You come to China without hotel reservations? But he tilted his head and reached in his pocket. Go to this hotel, he said. My company keeps a hotel room there rented all year so their employees have somewhere to stay when they come to Beijing. Don’t go to the main desk, he said, go around the main desk to a small room behind it – Room 101 – and tell them that you’re there to do business with me. I was wary of his advice,  Read More 

Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #2 - Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This is the second of three posts on my initial trip to China in 1986 -- light-years from the China I'm about to see in September, 2016...

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
This post, Part #2: "Screaming Through a Hole in the Window"
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

With our money in hand we headed out to make reservations to fly to Beijing. Our driver to the Waste Garden had told us it was very important to get the reservations right away and to be sure to go to the foreigners and diplomats line – both pieces of advice that I would never have taken during European travel. We got lost again looking for the main travel bureau, still operating under our American assumption that important things have big buildings.

The building we ultimately determined to be the main ticketing hub for all of Shanghai was tucked behind a cluster of abandoned buildings. It was a one-level, low-ceilinged building with half-dome roof tiles. When we stepped inside, it was filled, wall-to-wall, with men standing shoulder to shoulder (in matching Mao outfits of course.) There was no way to know which window to go to within the large general area and so I broke my own rule and went to the diplomats and foreigners window in the corner, the only sign in English. I bent low and talked through a hole in a plastic window to the woman to make arrangements – this was how I did all of my business in China, trying to communicate with women who were shouting at me through holes in plastic windows. To get to Beijing we had to rearrange our flight back to the US --back and forth numerous times. Had there been someone to help us translate? Did the driver help us? Doubtful. I was exhausted, riddled with anxiety  Read More 
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Full-Body Swimwear Liberates You from the Tyranny of the Bikini

I write to protest the recent decision by the city of Cannes in Southern France to outlaw full-body swimwear. My reasons involve both health and feminism, though not the feminist line that one is currently reading, but because I maintain that this full-body swimwear is incredibly liberating and long overdue.

I have had four surgeries for Basel cell skin cancer and after my first surgery started to treat sunshine as if it was secondhand smoke – a carcinogen lying in wait for me. I not only upped my SPF, but started wearing full body suits from both Solumbra and Stingray, an Australian company. This was 16 years ago, before the rash guard, when the only full-body covering was a wet-suit. I looked like a professional kayaker or diver in the wrong place. I looked odd, I knew, and when I was on the beach in Italy, I quickly learned the phrase “contro il sole” – against the sun – when the matronly women on the beach gestured and asked.

What I discovered, though, was that walking around with my thighs covered was tremendously liberating -- I moved with ease, bent over, sat in the sand with my legs spread, frolicked as I hadn’t when worried that my suit would ride up, would expose my bum, gap at the breasts. Now there was no gesture or movement that would compromise my privacy. So I was free  Read More 
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Hubris and Wonder in China 1986 - #1 - A Trio of Maps and a Challenge

In 1986 you could do the bootleg thing – meet a guy in a café and slide an envelope of money to him, he slides you two round-trip tickets to China issued under someone else’s name. Granted, there were visas and passports but the swap at the café was just the first of many incidents that broke what was my own convention, defied my understanding of how it was done, and made it a trip that started out with hubris and wound up filled with wonder.

That was my first trip to China and now, in 2016, I am returning, though just for a quick touchdown in Chengdu after flying nonstop in the United Airlines “Dream Machine,” (though since I am traveling coach I am sure it will not be that dreamy.) And my ultimate destination is the occupied zone of Tibet, which ensures another unique view of life in China. These are things I remember from the initial trip 30 years ago, recounted in three blog posts...

This first post: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

This was the time before Google Maps and Google Translate, even before the Internet and cell phones, when an intrepid traveler had a guidebook and maybe pulled the pages out after she’d been to a place,  Read More 

Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret  Read More 

Join Me in the Workshop: How to Write Historical Fiction, in Berkeley, CA

Really happy to be back to teaching, and back to The Writing Salon. If you're anywhere near the SF Bay Area, I would love to see you at this fun and affordable one-day workshop:

Writing Historical Fiction – Weaving Past and Present into Art

Historical fiction can transport you into worlds that are incredibly fun to write. Do you want to reintroduce a little-known hero/heroine into popular culture? Would you like to tell the sweeping saga of your own family’s struggle in America? Is there an event from long ago that seems hauntingly relevant today? Any story that is more than 50 years in the past is considered historical fiction, so sometimes one’s own childhood can be the source of inspiration.

Historical fiction has its own unique demands, though. I'm fond of mentioning that “You can’t just throw a tapestry over the flat screen TV in your scene and call it historical. There are real differences between modern life and life in the past, which require real differences in your writing. And that, to me, is the greatest thing about it.”

In this lively, one-day workshop, we will:
• Identify where each of you is in the process of your project – idea, complete research, plot obstacle
• Discuss how to research and when to stop researching
• Discuss how settings can help your plot
• Consider how to tell the story of famous people told from a fresh angle
• Identify ways in which historical stories illuminate modern truths
 Read More 

Tell Your Family Story in a Private Book?

Frequently I have people sign up for my writing classes – both the classes on general fiction construction and historical fiction – because they want to tell the story of their grandmother's trek across the American prairie by covered wagon; or their grandfather’s disappearance in World War II Germany; or even their own story from the Summer of Love. In all of those instances, I am struck by the notion that these writers are hemmed in by facts as well as by their desire to paint their ancestors in a favorable light. This doesn’t necessarily make great fiction, especially when fiction requires that you sometimes bend the facts to serve a larger truth.

So I was particularly interested when  Read More 

Brilliance from the NYT with Comments of My Own

I've been collecting brilliant things from the New York Times and thinking I would post them one at a time but, as usual, have fallen behind and besides, I felt it was inappropriate to just post someone else’s words with none of my own. However, I’ve gotten past that and now realize that it’s still an important part of sharing. I also discover by saving these that they fall into several categories that reveal what really matters to me: one, wisdom about writing; two, conditions that create joy and health; three, politics. Enjoy!

“The Secret of Effective Motivation”, New York Times, Sunday, July 6, 2014
“There are two kinds of motives for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do. What motives – internal or instrumental or both – is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. But…Instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.…  Read More 

Speaking the Truth when it's Dangerous: A Salute to Writers

Very wise words from Francine Prose in the NYTimes Book Review, July 20, 2014, pg. 35 when asked “What are the last literary taboos?”

“The chance of some worthy books failing to find a publisher doesn’t seem all that drastic compared with what regularly occurs in countries where literary taboos are still taken very seriously indeed. The websites of PEN American Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists documents the fates of writers who are accused of “spreading false rumors” in Ethiopia, or who keep a blog criticizing the Chinese government, or publish a pro-Kurdish article in Turkey, or irritate the kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel. Yet even when writers know the consequences – imprisonment, torture and death – they persist in defying the taboo, especially when the first and last taboo is against telling the truth.

Take, for instance, Mohammed ibn al -Dheeb al-Ajami, sentenced to  Read More 
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Brilliant Critique of Tech in NYTimes

This is one of the finest things I've read in quite a while, and anyone who writes, or is involved with technology in any way may find that this resonates.

“Among the Disrupted” by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times Book Review, January 18, 2015 at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html

“Among the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little or even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everyone talks frantically about media, a second -order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which ,words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows the force of expression diminishes : Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness cannot confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomenon that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data- gathering capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “trans-humanism” than to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of Utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains…”

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new… The strongest defense of the humanities  Read More