Saturday, March 26, 2016

One Of The Hardest Lessons To Learn

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but in my years of practicing Zen, one of the lessons I have to relearn and relearn is that of choosing to stay positive.  Sounds easy, right? Oh so wrong…

We all have many choices to make every hour of the day. What to eat. Who to spend time with. What to wear. How to do our jobs. How we commune to work. Which movie to watch. The list is endless. Hardly a minute goes by without us making some kind of choice.
I’ve heard many people (especially couples who have children) say, “I have no choice but to work where I do, there are no others jobs available.” They complain that they have few choices because need drives every decision, and they must do whatever must be done for the children, or for this, that, or the other thing.
In my view, these people are making excuses in order to avoid taking charge of their lives. 
I am often amazed at how easily people (and I include myself in this) surrender the right to make choices that have a profound impact on their lives. They simply fail to realize that when they give up their right to choose they give up the opportunity to choose their life.
All of the choices that people give up, none is more devastating than giving up the choice of their attitude. Often people let other people and events determine whether they are in a “good mood” or not. Well, folks, “good mood” or bad, what you project looks a lot like an attitude to the people around you.
What I’ve learned is that I cannot control the attitude of others. I cannot always control the events that make up my day. What I can and must control is how I respond to them. THAT will determine my attitude. 
Here’s my choice, and it’s one I get to make multiple times everyday. Will my attitude be a thermostat that sets its own “temperature” or will it be a thermometer that reflects the temperature of those around it?
The most successful people understand this profound fact: No one and nothing can take my positive attitude away from me unless I let it happen. 
It’s my choice. 
The choice to maintain a positive attitude in the face of trying people and problematic challenges does more to improve the quality of my life than any other single thing I can do. 
Some days it is a battle to maintain that attitude, but I’ve found that it’s a war worth fighting because it gives me control of my life. One huge weapon I used in fighting that battle is forgiveness. It’s hard to have a negative attitude toward someone once you’ve truly forgiven them. 

The alternative is to give up control and be carried along by swirling emotions caused by outside forces. The choice is always mine (and yours) to make.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing Tip: Building Readership

I belong to several online writing groups where topics about writing/publishing are bantered around endlessly. Most of it is both entertaining and interesting. Yesterday a writer posted his frustrations about not being able to grow his readership. He explained that he writes in a variety of genres—contemporary romance, historical, steampunk, paranormal, etc.—and his readers who like one genre drop him like a stone when they read another genre by him that they don’t like. He posed the question whether he should focus on one or two genres while he builds his readership.

He received an avalanche of advice—everything from narrowing his focus, to publishing many more books faster, to writing a series where the same characters are featured in several novels. I didn’t offer my $0.02 because I’ve not done that great a job of expanding my readership. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head so I thought I would blog about it as a way to clarify my thoughts.

It seemed to me he is focused on the wrong issue. His focus is on how to get more readers. It seems to me his focus should be on writing high quality stories, something that will knock the socks off readers, regardless of what genre it follows.

Admittedly, you can gather what I know about readers into a thimble and you’d still have plenty of room for other things, but I think what readers (at least this reader) enjoys most is: a great hook, fascinating character development, impeccable prose, a captivating plot, and an unexpected yet satisfying ending. Easy peasy, right? (grin)

My point is, in my view most readers don’t care if it’s contemporary vs. historical vs. paranormal. What they crave is a gripping, emotional story with quality writing. They want their emotional buttons pushed, and they want to enjoy the prose while that’s happening. If you can deliver that every time, in my humble opinion, then your readers will not only stick by you, they will clamor for more and tell their friends in the process.

My advice: write the stories you feel compelled to write, but focus on quality. If it takes you three years to deliver a quality product, then take three years. One of my favorite writers, Alex Jeffers, has only written three or four books in the last ten years, and each one is impeccable. I don’t care what genre he writes in, I will read anything he publishes because I know it will be great work. He never releases anything until it is entirely thought out and polished to a dazzling sheen. I have no idea if he has a large following, but I do know that all of the readers I’ve talked to who know him are as devoted as I am to his work.

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting that my stories are in the same league as Alex Jeffers and Felice Picano and others of that caliber. What I’m saying is my focus is on improving my craft so that one day, hopefully, I will publish the kind of superior stories of those writers I so admire.

Build a quality mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, or so the saying goes.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Eric and Ray's Wedding

Saturday, Herman and I attended the wedding of our friends, Ray and Eric. We met Eric on the tennis courts about two years ago, and we’ve gotten to know them well. Ray is a cancer survivor, a man with a lust for life. Eric is a great match for him, willing to go anywhere and try anything. They have been partners for over twenty years. It warmed my heart to watch them open their hearts and share their vows in front of all their family and closest friends.

It was an outdoor ceremony, and we enjoyed perfect Palm Springs weather with a nice view of the mountains in the background. Lovely.

I’m not the kind of person who cries at weddings, but it always reminds me of how much I love my own husband, and that is often emotional, especially after two glasses of champagne.

The first picture below is Hermand and I. The one below that is the wedding couple. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Writing Tip: Secrets

Secrets are at the heart of many plots. In fact, if you study nearly any romantic comedy, you’ll fine that all the comic situations are built on secrets or lies, usually both. 

I have long believed that a good writer will allow his characters to keep secrets, and the secrets must be revealed before the end. But the question is when and why to reveal them. 

Something that I learned in a screenwriting class is, the best way to disclose a secret is when disclosing is the lesser of two evils. That is: if a character reveals a secret, s/he will lose respect or love or something worse. But, if s/he doesn’t reveal the secret, then something far more devastating will happen. 

So characters reveal secrets only when forced, to prevent something horrible from happening. A writer will do this to heighten the drama. 

Also, by having secrets, the reader knows that the truth will eventually be found out. So by introducing these secrets early on, it keeps the reader in suspense of when the truth will be revealed, and what the fallout will be when that eventually happens. 

Once a character withholds information, then the plot should twist the story so that the longer the character holds his/her secret, the more devastating the results will be when the information is finally exposed. It’s like a harmless little white lie that begins to build on itself, taking on bigger meaning and more damaging consequences until it will have a huge dramatic effect over everyone’s lives. 

Like any literary device, characters keeping secrets is a powerful tool in the writer’s hands. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Life Lesson I Keep Relearning

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but in my years of practicing Zen, one of the lessons I have to relearn and relearn is that of letting go of the past.  Sounds easy, right? Oh so wrong…

Zen practice is all about staying in the moment, to be open and fresh for whatever this moment offers, or in some cases, whatever this moment throws at you. It’s about not carrying the weight of the past around on your shoulders. Believe me, personal history becomes heavier by the day until you become bogged down by the dense mass of it.

I don’t have to keep defending or explaining my past. It’s over. It’s not who I am anymore. And most importantly, it doesn’t have to influence the decisions I make now or in the future. 

The lesson I have to keep relearning is to forgive myself, for both my failures and triumphs, and move on, focusing on discovering what is right before me in this moment. 

On of my favorite quotes is related to staying in the moment: If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Leave behind all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness, and fears. – Glenn Clark

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Burden of Being Gay

I recently talked to an old friend, a wonderful man who is a long-time AIDS suffer. He’s had poor health for twenty years, and had several near-death experiences. While we talked I asked about his health status—which is not good—and I remarked that, yes, AIDS is a heavy burden, obviously the worst one of his life.

He thought about that for a moment and said, “No, it’s not.”

I asked, “What could be worse?”

“You may not believe this, because you’re a well adjusted gay man in a happy marriage,” he said, “but for me, being gay is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear.”

I shook my head, not believing it.

“No question about it,” he said, “being gay has always been my biggest adversity. Having to live as a minority in America is beyond hard. It’s dehumanizing. Even now it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me, dragging me under.”

I can still feel my surprise and my pain. I simply had never thought of comparing the two conditions before. However, I now understand his remark. Having AIDS is the result of biological factors over which we have little control. Racism/sexism, however, is entirely made by people’s ignorant hate, and therefore it hurts and inconveniences infinitely more. It’s there spitting in our face every time we step out our front door.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m proud to be an American, and proud to be gay. And these are exciting times to be gay. But being a minority—a hated minority—in this country is a heavy hardship that I’ve lived with daily for the last fifty years. And I can well understand where some people would think poor health and several near-death experiences would be a walk in the park by comparison.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Writing Tip: Active vs. Passive Voice

With active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; a direct action. Sentences with active verbs are generally clearer, more direct, and more concise. 
With passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Who performs the action may appear in a “by the...” phrase or may be omitted. Passive voice always includes a form of to be, such as am, is, was, were, are, been, or of course, to be in the verb construction. Overuse of passive verbs is often overly wordy, flat, and slows the pacing. 

Active voice: The dog bit the girl. 
Passive: The girl was bitten by the dog. 

Active: Alan will submit his manuscript to the publisher. 
Passive: The manuscript will be submitted to the publisher by Alan. 

Active: Scientists have conducted experiments to test the theory. 
Passive: Experiments were conducted by scientists to test the theory. 

Rules of thumb 
To avoid overuse of passive voice, I do a search on the word ‘was’ if writing in past tense and ‘is’ when writing in present tense. I try to limit the number of times I use these passive voice words to three per page. 

What is really confusing is when a writer starts a sentence I in active voice, then changes to passive, as in: Many regular customers found the coffee too weak to enjoy, but it was still ordered frequently. Edited: Many customers found the coffee too weak to enjoy, but they still ordered it frequently. 

Changing passive voice to active voice 
To change voice from passive to active, consider who or what is performing the action. Make that who or what the subject of the sentence and change the verb accordingly. 

Passive: The movie is being reviewed by every reviewer. 
Active voice: Every reviewer is reviewing the movie. 

Using passive voice effectively 
The passive voice is effective when the subject performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the subject until the last part of the sentence or to avoid mentioning the subject at all, thus highlighting the action rather than who performs it. 

Active: “Authorities make rules to be broken,” he said defiantly. 
Passive: “Rules are made to be broken,” he said defiantly. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Long Slow Path

Thirty-five+ years ago, I was living in San Francisco, attending college at night to earn an Information Technology degree while working full time at an entry level position in a computer services company. I was out. I had a caring lover who worked at the same company, plenty of friends, a stylish apartment, and living in the gay capital of the world before the age of AIDS. It was all wonderfully exciting. I was living my dream and thought I had the world by the tail. Then a friend loaned me a book by Carlos Castaneda about an Indian sorcerer named Don Juan who seemed to live in a different reality.

Castaneda tickled my curiosity, but more importantly, he made me feel that perhaps there was more to life that a great lover and a good career. Before I could blink, I devoured three more Castaneda books, a few Seth books and a little gem by Ram Dass called Be Here Now. By that time I had moved beyond the “mildly interested” faze, and was already inching down a path that would lead me deep into Eastern philosophy towards a destination that I had no inkling of.

Before I knew what was up, I was spending time in daily meditation, reading everything I could get my hands on regarding philosophy, and repeatedly going into the California deserts to perform week long vision quests. I was very lucky, in that my lover at the time was also quite happy to travel that same path with me. In fact, at times it seemed that he was leading the way down that path, at other times he was dragging me along, as he was always quicker on the uptake that I was. It was something we did together and it did wonders for our relationship.

All those books and vision quests and talks with “teachers” led me to Zen, which seemed to me to be the cornerstone that many other religions and philosophies were built on. All the religions I’ve studied (including Christianity), once you strip away the fairytale dogma, it comes down to diminishing the ego (Satan) to let the unconscious (Christ) shine through as a way to touch enlightenment (God). And that is exactly what Zen is all about with a no frills, straightforward manner. I was a student of Zen, and Buddhism in general, for over fifteen years.

And now, yes, finally coming to the Now, I am venturing beyond Zen and tiptoeing down my path to learning the nature of the universe and the nature of life, and inching closer to Enlightenment.

After all these years, I still have no clear definition of what Enlightenment is, although I’ve had several enlightenment experiences that have given me a taste of it. The one thing I am absolutely clear about is, Enlightenment is not a matter of gaining or attaining something. It is a matter of losing something, that little, yet demanding voice in our heads we call ego.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Racism Fueling The GOP Primaries

Watched part of the GOP debate a few nights ago, and once again became embarrassed. The level of ignorance and schoolyard bullying going on in these debates is shocking. And what is so appalling to me is not that men running for high office act this way, nor that the GOP seems to have nobody more capable to replace these people, but that so many voters support this kind of buffoonery, and even encourage it. I’m convinced that this support comes from a deep-seated bigotry, a reaction of resentment to eight years of being governed by an African-American intellectual.

Then I read a passage in How I Shed My Skin by Jim Grimsley, that helped put it in perspective. He talks about his own experience of growing up in the South, but I believe this translates to other parts of the country as well. Here is that passage:

The Southerner had a position in the social order: white, trash, slave, merchant, overseer, paddyroller, artisan, master. This functioned as a kind of temperature, which moved up or down with one’s fortunes or behavior. Knowing your place in the world and accepting it, paying respect to your betters and giving a good kick to those beneath you, these were and are part of the Southern order.

A Southerner accepted his station in life but tried to find the means to rise above it. That same Southerner accepted that station of others in life and tried with all his might to keep them in it. The Southern world spent much of its energy deciding who was entitled to advantages and who was not, and most especially who was better than whom. The social hierarchy was complicated and endless, Southern memory long and vengeful. Violations of the social order, lack of respect for one’s betters and their relations, brought quick retribution along with slow and thorough revenge.

God never put us equal onto the earth. The very notion was absurd. God put us in a hierarchy, some better and many worse, and He gave us life so that we could discover who was the better and who was the worse. Southerners have never believed in equality, even when they have believed in some kind of democracy. The two ideas have never had much association with each other.

In this, I am mostly speaking of the white Southerner, thought I don’t doubt that black and brown Southerners share some of the same traits. I was raised to be a believer in the United States as a white nation, in the South as a white paradise, and in the superiority of my European descended race over all the other races of the earth. No one ever said these words to me in such clear terms, but, nevertheless, I learned the ideas behind these beliefs. In particular, I was raised to keep black people in their place, and to see to it that they stayed there.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Writing Tip: Unlikeable Protagonists

Many writers, and I’ve done this myself, spend a great deal of energy making their protagonists jump through hoops in order to make them likeable. And admittedly, many readers demand that the protagonist be sweet and charming, or at least someone they can adore. 

Yet, many of literature’s most interesting and often most beloved characters are despicable rogues. One of my favorites is Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs series of films. He’s a coldblooded killer, with no remorse at all. Yet, he fascinated me. Without Lecter, those movies would have been unbelievably boring. His dark character brought them to life. He stole the show. Look at any movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. I’ve never seen a likeable character in any of his films.  

So what makes us cheer for a contemptible character? As a fellow writer, Damon Suede, put it: “Unlikeable behavior is not what makes a character unappealing, but rather the context of that behavior. We often want these characters to behave awfully, and take pleasure in the wreckage they generate. So I don’t think it’s actually likeability that’s the issue.”

What readers need is a way to interface with a character. Hannibal Lecter, for example, was in fact a ruthless killer, yet he became very protective of Clarice Starling. That protectiveness was a thread the reader could relate to. He also was a competent artist and loved classical music, two more threads. When talking to Clarice, he had impeccable manners, another thread. He was not at all likeable, yet he had elements that most viewers could relate to. The writers gave him traits that viewers found accessible. 

Another great example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Selfish, conniving, ruthless. But going from riches to rags and living through the devastation of the war, we understand her perfectly. We connected, and we even sympathized. 

So go ahead and make your characters all assholes. Just be sure that within the context you place them, give them traits that will be accessible to the reader. Place them in mounting conflict that explains why they behave badly. And it always helps to make the villains more despicable than the protagonists. :-)

If you find that your characters have become annoying rather than enthralling, then revisit how the context, stakes and escalating conflict affect their values and behavior, rather than trying to make them more likable.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Excerpt: Buddha's Bad Boys by Alan Chin

I’m very pleased to announce that my latest book, an anthology of six short works called BUDDHA’S BAD BOYS, is available everywhere fine books are sold. You can buy it now, in paperback or any eBook format, at

Bold Strokes Books

Some of these stories are purely fictional, while others are based on real people and true events.

Blurb: There are many reason why Western men turn to Eastern religion—searching for inner truth, lost love, loneliness, fleeing the law, hopelessness, alcoholism. Some travel halfway around the world in an attempt to overcome their particular dissoluteness, only to realize that improving yourself is like polishing air. What they eventually discover, nevertheless, is one of the Buddha’s most significant lessons: enlightenment comes to those whose singular focus is on helping others less fortunate. 

Six stories, six troubled gay men trudging down the road to enlightenment. What they each find is that last thing in the world they expected.

The first story in this anthology is called Monk For A Month and is about two men, Reece and Doug, are almost done with the “Monk for a Month” program at the temple in Chiang Mai, where they have been living like Buddhist monks. But on the same night that Reece finds that Doug is having an affair with another Thai monk, there is a murder lose in the town. Reece sees the killer hiding in the temple and goes about trying to help him escape the police. In the process, a love affair begins.

I sat at the bar sporting saffron robes and a shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender, who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or because the hard rain was hurting his business, or if he simply didn’t like serving alcohol to a monk, even a Caucasian one.

“His name Somchai,” the bartender said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong clip that I had come to adore. “He kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”

I had seen a dead body only once, a gruesome spectacle. It took an effort to settle my nerves as the bartender glared at me, as if, also being an American, made me an accomplice. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what ruthless lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.

Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.

“When did Somchai kill Warren?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.

The bartender didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also slain Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.

The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.

The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.

“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean,” I asked.

“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the bartender’s face. “A real beauty.”

“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I have no more money. Can I buy on credit?”

The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.

The bartender prepared our drinks while the customer moved to the stool beside mine. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is considered disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.

“I overheard your talk about the murders.”

“Why haven’t they caught him yet?” I asked. “Chiang Mai’s a small town.”

“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”

Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with wealth and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay kid with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?

I felt thankful that I came from a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I liked to believe that bit of hype.

The bartender placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.

“I’ve never seen a monk do that,” Poe said.

“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just an IT geek along for the ride.”

“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.

“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”

The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, and where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides.  The top of the wall was wide enough to walk on, and just then a flock of children scampered along the wet brick, heedless of the danger of slipping. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the saffron robes. The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.

It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.

Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.

Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old with a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, laughed at, and occasionally beaten up by his peers.

Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like a ceaseless illumination. The thunder was continuous. The noise burst like metal fireworks, and then would immediately rise again; its modulations grew less and less defined as the shower let up, until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.

“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.

Moments later, the shower stopped. Poe left his stool and pointed at the leaden sky, patched with massive blotches of somber gray so low that it seemed to brush the rooftops. “Don’t let that fool you.”