Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading Treasure Island

When I checked into the Smith Residence here in Chiang Mai, I noticed that Treasure Island was on the shelf of their lending library. I read it in my youth, but I decided to read it again.

Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, narrating a tale of "buccaneers and buried gold". First published as a book on 23 May 1883, it was originally serialized in the children's magazine Young Folks between 1881 and 1882 under the title Treasure Island or, the mutiny of the Hispaniola with Stevenson adopting the pseudonym Captain George North. Traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, Treasure Island is a tale noted for its atmosphere, characters and action, and also as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality – as seen in Long John Silver – unusual for children's literature.

I found it a delightful read, with interesting characters, plenty of action to keep the plot moving nicely, and a wonderful and entertaining voice. It was originally written for a young adult audience, but there is enough complexity woven into the characters so it can also be a joy for us mature adults. It is no wonder this book has turned into a classic. I’ll be putting more of Stevenson's works on my reading list.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Writing Tip: Elements of a Romantic Comedy

For the past three weeks I’ve been trying to finish everything on my plate so I can focus on a new screenplay that my script-writing partner and I have begun. I’m almost there. And because the script we are writing is a romantic comedy, one of the things I’ve been doing in my spare time is researching what makes romantic comedies different from other types of stories. And although I’m focused on screenwriting, the principles apply to novels and short stories as well. 

So far I’ve found six distinguishing elements that separate romantic comedy from the rest of the field. They are:

1) The main character (Hero) must pursue some sexual or romantic interest. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a writer could decide to have the love interest be someone other than the hero. However, as with all successful stories, the most important character is the hero, with whom the reader or audience most strongly identifies with, and in romantic comedies it must be this character who is pursuing (or being pursued by) some compelling romantic desire. That’s what makes it a romantic comedy – the hero must desperately try to win (or win back) the affections of another character. 

2) The hero must pursue an additional goal. Simultaneously chasing two or more goals (often goals at odds with each other) adds complexity and originality to the story, and also accelerates the pacing.

3) The characters are desperate to achieve their goals, and fight apposing conflicts with tenacity. They should never think they, or the situation, is funny. It must be deadly serious to them. Strangely enough, the comedy grows out of the hero’s pain and loss. The plots of the most successful comedies deal with cheating spouses, disease, physical abuse, humiliation, unemployment, suicide and death. The humor arises from the way the hero overreacts to these situations. 

4) Although most romantic comedies almost never show actual sex, they are sexy. There is always lots of flirting, and the hero must confront his/her sexual desire. If the hero and love interest do slip into bed together, the audience must see everything leading up to that hot embrace before the bedroom door shuts in our face. 

5) The plot resolves around a deception. For instance, the hero is pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, The Birdcage), or is lying to his beloved about his feelings or intentions in order to pursue the relationship. Dishonesty is a necessary element to increase the conflict and humor, and also to force the hero to confront his/her inner conflicts and deceptions. Only by facing the truth about themselves are they able to arc into someone better. 

6) It must have a happy ending, or if the hero doesn’t get the boy, the reader feels that the resolution is the most appropriate or satisfying ending for the hero.

Monday, December 26, 2016

What If? By Ganga White

Today I’d like to share a poem I came across this week.

What If?  By Ganga White

What if our religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?

What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water-the rivers, lakes and oceans?

What if meditation was our relationships?
If the Teacher was life?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being?


Friday, December 23, 2016

Market Day in Mae Taeng, Thailand

Market Day in Mae Taeng. A weekly market where mostly farming hill tribe people come into the city to sell their produce. Lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and even some exotic orchids.
The prices are not to be believed.

Taro, beans, Holland papayas, bananas, and ginger.

Gooseberries and strawberries.

Orchid shopping

Exotic mushrooms

Everyone on their cellphones

More Orchid shopping

Hill tribe merchant with her children

Fried bananas

Alan raiding the banana and pumpkin truck


Banana blossoms

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing Tip: Flashbacks - use them sparingly

I’ve read two books in the last month that managed to capture my interest, get a good pace and story momentum going, and then introduce a number of lengthy flashbacks, which killed all forward movement, stalled momentum and introduced back-story that was not needed. When that happens I want to toss the damned book out the window. 

In my humble opinion, the last thing a writer wants to do is stop the story’s momentum in order to introduce back-story. There are good reasons for doing so, but if you’re going to do it, make sure that it is absolutely critical because 1) back-story is seldom as interesting as the current storyline the reader is caught up in so you risk boring the reader, and 2) once you’ve stopped the storyline action to give back-story, it is very difficult to jumpstart that momentum once you come back to it. 
So the question is, how and when to introduce flashbacks.  

Flashbacks are important. Generally, a writer wants to start a story as late in the action as possible. Sometimes s/he may want to start the story long after an event that is crucial to the storyline. So what do you do? You start the story later, but then have a flashback in order to present the needed event or back-story. But understand that you are taking the reader away from the story in order to give him/her background, and background is BORING, or at least not as interesting as the storyline.

So there are a couple of tricks to using flashbacks that help minimize the damage. First, flashbacks in the first half of a story are much less disruptive than the ones that occur late in the story, because at the beginning it is expected that the writer will present information with which to build the story on. As the story progresses, the pacing usually quickens, the momentum builds, and the reader wants to get to the end of the story to find out what happens. So if you halt the momentum near the end, you risk pissing off the reader. So always try to introduce back-story early. 

Another tip is to keep the flashbacks as short as possible. Remember, you’re taking the reader away from the storyline, and the reader wants to find out what happens in the storyline. The longer you drag it out, the more you risk having a dissatisfied reader. 

So my personal rules of thumb when it comes to flashbacks are:
1) Use them only to introduce information CRITICAL to the story.
2) Avoid using any in the second half of the story.
3) Keep them as short as possible.

Monday, December 19, 2016

After the Electoral Vote, I’m Turning to Food to Cope with Depression

One of the things I love most about hanging out in Chiang Mai, Thailand are the food options. I love Thai food, and the best is found here.

Simple eating in Chiang Mai is easy with pretty good local street food, plenty of great Indian and Chinese options, and good strong coffee everywhere.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Writing Tip: Killing the army of ly

So far I’ve stayed away from tips on editing prose and focused on the larger issues of plot, developing characters and story structure. But this week, because I’ve been doing just this for two days, I want to focus on adjectives and adverbs, those pesky words that end in ‘ly’.

Adverbs and adjectives can bloat your prose and slow the pacing to a craw if you don’t keep a strict handle on them. They give the impression of giving your prose a lofty tone, yet they add very little to the content. And when overdone, they make the read difficult.

For the past two days I’ve performed an exercise on my work-in-progress. I’ve done a search on “ly “(ly plus a space.) So I’m going through the entire document evaluating each word that ends in ly to see if I can get rid of it, without effecting the meaning.

I’ve found that I have overused a number of words: finally, simply, suddenly, slightly, only, perfectly, really, etc.

And what I’ve found is that, 90% of the time when I delete these words, the prose becomes stronger, flows better. I wish I could stop myself from putting them there in the first place, but I can’t for some reason. But thank God for a text editor that can do a search. The difference is astounding (I first typed ‘truly astounding’, but then realized I was doing it again… And of course the word ‘truly’ adds nothing to the sentence.)

So a very simple way to improve your prose is to cut adjectives and adverbs to the bone, and cutting most of the words that end in ‘ly’ is a good start.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Influences In My Life – part 3

I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.

Today, I’ll complete this series by focusing on my husband. I met Herman Chin at the San Francisco opera about two years after my divorce with John Ahrens. At the time we met, we were very attracted to each other but Herman was happily married to Steve, and had been for twenty-one years. I met Steve, and found him to be a decent and exceedingly likeable man. Herman and I frequently met over coffee or dinners (I couldn’t call it dating, and we couldn’t really push it any further) for about six months, and in all that time I knew he was the man for me, yet I never thought he would leave Steve, and I refused to asked him to do so. Little did I know, early on, he told Steve he was falling in love with me, and the two often talked about them splitting up so Herman could live with me.

Things came to a head when Herman asked me to join him on a month-long vacation to Egypt, Italy, and France. He said it would be only us two, and we would be lovers, at least while on this trip. When he made it clear that Steve had given this trip his blessing, I jumped at it. We shared what turned out to be the most marvelous adventure of my life. At some point between climbing five-thousand-year-old pyramids and wandering the backstreets of Rome, we realized we were not simply lovers, we were soul mates—or to be more accurate, we were one soul split into two bodies. Within a few weeks of returning to the States, Herman moved into my house, and we have not spent a night apart in twenty years.

On that first trip abroad, Herman became my guide, both in foreign cultures and in love. He and Steve had traveled through Europe several times, and he knew the ropes of maneuvering an unfamiliar culture. It was during that first trip that our roles were defined—he the guide, me the follower; me the lover, he the loved. And during that time we began a project I call, Humanizing Alan. You see, by that time in my life I’d become a man driven by ambitions, first to climb the corporate ladder and later to become a successful writer. I had become a goal-oriented animal, an aggressive competitor, with little thought to the people around me. I had bought into the American dream of greed and achievement hook, line, and sinker.

Herman, on the other hand, owned a small dental lab where he and two employees made false teeth. He purposely kept his business small so he could supervise all aspects of his trade and keep personal relationships with his dentist clients. He was an artist, whose artwork ended up in peoples’ mouths, and he was content to live modestly, without striving to become more of anything. He and I were very different, as I had spent half my life striving to become successful, and I felt I had a long way to go.

It was Herman’s example of non-striving that convinced me to finally walk away from Corporate America and follow my dream of writing. He convinced me that I already had achieved everything I needed, was already everything I needed to be. So in 1999, after a year of serious discussions, we both took a leap of faith and retired from the world of business. He and I turned forty-five that year. I began to write. He began to travel, and of course, I followed.

It was during our travels that the Humanizing Alan project really kicked into high gear. There is nothing, in my humble opinion, that makes one reevaluate one’s own culture and beliefs more than immersing one’s self in foreign cultures. Contrast can be a very powerful teaching tool, and what is even more powerful is living in an environment where you’re the minority, the odd man out, the one children point and laugh at. Simply being in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you depend on the kindness of those not as fortunate as you, is a humbling and humanizing experience. At first you realize, really know, you are no better than them. Then you realize you are them. Soon, you begin to love them. And finally, you begin to love yourself.

Herman and I travel four to six months each year. In our twenty years together, we have visited over fifty different countries, and have twice circled the globe. We have dined in the best restaurants in Europe, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef, rode elephants in Nepal and India, gone on safari in Africa, chanted with monks in Tibet, hiked the Great Wall, and trekked to ancient ruins like Angkor Wat and the Pyramids of Giza. This spring we plan to tackle South America for the first time.

Without Herman as my guide, I fear I would have never had the courage to leave the States. He has shown me the world, and how to love all the people in it. In the process, he’s made me a more compassionate person. I’m not quite ready for sainthood, but each day my ego dies a little bit more, and my empathy for the people around me grows. This, more than anything, is what Herman has taught me, not by lectures, but by example. I’ve literally seen him walk through the slums of Calcutta and embrace the people there, as he does in every country we visit.

These days I continue to publish books; I’m now working on number ten. But the idea of being a success is meaningless. I write because I am compelled to write, it brings great pleasure. I publish to see my words in print and to share my stories with anyone who chooses to read them. My only goal at this point in life is to make my husband as happy as possible.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Influences In My Life – part 2

I met John Aherns in Corpus Christy, Texas while stationed on the naval base in Kingsville, Texas. He was living in Huston at the time, and for several months we carried on a long-distance relationship, spending two or three weekends a month together. It was nothing too serious because I knew I would be leaving Texas the very minute I received my discharge from the Navy, but he was handsome and successful and more refined than anyone I’d ever known, so I was determined to spend as much time as possible with him. But about six months before my discharge, to my surprise and delight, John quit his Huston job and moved to Kingsville, announcing that when I left for California, he was coming with me. I moved off base, and lived with John in a studio garage apartment, So began a sixteen-year project of what I like to call, Educating Alan.

We started this project when John joined a book club that sent us one leather-bound, classic per month. He and I would both read the book and then spend several days discussing the meaning, characters, and style. For me, there was something wondrous about reading a finely made, leather-bound book. I loved the feel and smell of the pages, the weight of it. I confused the act of learning with the smell of fine leather. I saw myself doing something that only, or so I thought, intellectuals did—sit quietly for hours on end reading important books. Not all of those books were a pleasure to read, but each one was a stepping-stone to a place of more confidence for me. As the number of books on our little shelf grew, I began to imagine a room filled with bookshelves that were crammed with tomes, all mine, where I’d spend my time letting literary people carry me away into distant adventures. Thus, we joined two more book clubs, receiving three books a month, and I began to see that dream take shape.

Those early months were more than just reading, of course. It was a time when I learned, quite unexpectedly, that I could have a loving, monogamous relationship with a man. Until that point, I had assumed that my life as a gay man would be hanging out in bars, always on the lookout for someone to spend a few precious hours with, or days and possibly even weeks or months if I really scored.  It seemed like such a lonely future, but John—in those quiet hours of reading together, of cooking a meal and watching TV over dinner, of crawling into bed with the same wonderful man every night—showed me a loving relationship was not only possible, I was already living the dream. I think it was during that time of awakening to what we had, what we were, that turned my admiration of John into love for him.

After I was discharged from the Navy and we had settled into an apartment in Sunnyvale, California, John took a Computer Programmer’s job in San Francisco, and I landed a job operating construction heavy equipment in what is now Silicon Valley. John convinced me to attend night school at De Anza Community College. By that time I had begun to realize how woefully inadequate my education was, and it was never so obvious as when we attended parties of his work colleagues, and they would look down their noses at me, talking down to me as whispering behind my back (loud enough for me to hear) calling me, “John’s sexy nitwit” (the term boy toy was not invented yet.)  I became hungry to catch up, to show them all. This would be a pattern for nearly our entire sixteen-year relationship, him working one job and taking care of me, me working a fulltime, lower-paying job during the day while attending night school.

Two years after moving to Sunnyvale, I finally decided on a career path to study for. I wanted to program computers, like John. There was an opening at his company for an entry-level person, basically a gofer, that paid next to nothing. I took that job, we moved to San Francisco, and I began attending SF State, taking a half load at night. 
The next five or six years were among the most exciting and colorful years of my life. Being gay and living in hottest gay hub in the world was exciting enough, but once I began taking computer classes and working my way up the corporate ladder, I felt like a man with a mission and a full head of steam. For the first time in my life, I had lofty goals and the confidence to know that, with enough commitment, I could achieve those goals. My attitude became: nothing will stop me, I will become as good as the best of them. John had created a monster, and there was no turning back. There are times, now, when I picture a mountain climber, struggling up K2, exhausting himself with each heavy lift of his boot, and each lurch up the slope, until he’s expended every ounce of energy. But he finally crawls his way to the summit, and then stands tall while shaking his fists at the valleys below. 

Over the next decade, we moved from San Francisco to Sausalito, and two year later we moved further north to San Rafael where we bought a lovely three-bedroom home. As I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, I also hung my diplomas on the wall—Associates of Arts degree in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics, and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. In all that time, John continued to help me with my schoolwork, proofread my papers, giving me encouragement. While working toward by economics degree, he even took classes with me so he could better help me. And in all that time, we continued our reading together and discussing books. He also introduced me to opera, classical music, and jazz, giving me lessons in what’s considered the fine arts. 

I had originally entered the writing program at the University of San Francisco as a way to improve my business writing skill, but the by time I had attained my degree, I had fallen in love with the creative aspects of writing fiction. My dreams had changed. I no longer wanted to continue climbing the corporate ladder. By that time, there were only three rungs left to climb, and I had become frustrated with corporate management. I wanted to quit and become a full time writer. I was caught in the early stages of a midlife crises. The problem, however, was that John was already eyeball deep in his own crises and wanted to cut and run. We made a deal, I would support him while he went to medical school to become a physician’s assistant (he felt a strong need to help sick people) and once he had a good paying job again, he would support me while I walked away from Corporate American to become a full time writer. 

Our roles were reversed for the first time. I was working like a dog while he attended school at UC Davis, and I would help write his papers. But cutting our household income in half had a dramatic effect on both of us, and the stress became unbearable. It took years for John to achieve his degree, and I supported him for most of that time, but the stress of both of us in a midlife crisis and not enough money to pay all the bills at the end of the month took its toll on our relationship. He eventually moved out of our San Rafael house, and I got a loan to purchase his half of the house in order to give him the money to finish his schooling. 

Braking up with John, I think, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, even more emotionally damaging than the death of my father. It became a drawn out, painful process that took several years to recover from. For sixteen years, John was my lover, my teacher, and the epitome of everything I wanted to achieve. He patiently guided me down a path, starting at dirt stupid and ending at reasonably intelligent. By the end of our relationship, I had attained my goal—I was his equal in intelligence, career level, and earning power. And the funny thing was, as is human nature, by the time I had attained those dreams, I no longer valued them.

John and I are best friends today. He and his husband, Jeffery, live in the mountains a short three-hour drive away. Herman and I regularly visit them, and we all enjoy each other’s company. John and I still love each other, but we are happier living apart.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Influences In My Life – part 1

My life has not been filled with influential people. I’ve known numerous men and women who I have admired, but for the most part, I did not come to know any of them personally, and because of that, they held little inspiration for me. 

My family, on both mother’s and father’s side, had no notable personalities, or at least nobody who could claim any pronounced abilities or achievements. I come from a family of farmers and ranchers. I did, later in life, come to hold my grandfather in high regard, because he could neither read nor write, and yet he worked a rather sizable farm in Ogden, Utah, and raised seven conscientious children. He was a man who worked hard all his life, and expected nothing more than what he earned for himself and his family. His only goal was to instill a sense of integrity into his children, and pass on something to each one of them to help them get started in life. As his children grew of age and married, he parceled off one-seventh of his land and gave it to them as a wedding present, until he had nothing left—rather like King Lear. But because my father moved us to California, not only did we forfeit the land, I rarely saw that honorable man.

I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.

I’ll first focus on my father. Bernard Franklin Hurlburt was born into a family of sheepherders in Western Colorado, up around Grand Junction. Shortly after entering the seventh grade, he was forced (I suspect it didn’t take much encouragement) to abandon school and work the ranch through depressed times. That turned into a hard, dull life, which he was finally able to escape via the United States Marines. He enlisted as soon as he came of age, and I believe that all his life, he considered his stint in the Marines as the happiest time of his life. 

As a young solider, Bernard was footloose, handsome in his dress blues, and had money in his pockets to impress the girls. He was, by all accounts, a ladies man. By the time he reached his twenty-first birthday, he met a beautiful deaf girl of eighteen years, and he fell in love. He met my mother, a farmer’s daughter, in Ogden, Utah. I’m not altogether sure whether he was on leave or stationed nearby. I do know that they met while he was still in the service of his country, and that she was the main reason he left the Marines for civilian life. They were wed and took up residence in Ogden.

Bernard had no skills other than ranching sheep and precision marching (as a marine, he was a member of a precision drill team). For years, he hung around a mechanic shop in Ogden, learning the trade of auto repair. Those were hard times, because he didn’t get a salary. Members of the Mormon Church dropped by weekly with a box of food. The rest of our food came from my grandfather’s farm. Clothes were all hand-me-downs. My mother tells of walking to the general store and bringing home discarded, cardboard boxes, and then unfolding the boxes flat and nailing them to the walls so keep the winter wind from coming through the gaps between the boards. The first few years of my life were spent in a shack. The rent was ten dollars per month, and in two years we fell six months behind on the rent.

By the time I was two years old, Bernard landed a paying job as a auto-body repairman, and life got easier—at least my family didn’t rely on the Church to feed us. By the time I was five, my father had grown tired of my mother’s protective family giving him grief, and he moved us all to San Jose, California. There he bought a house and opened his own auto repair shop and towing company. Life began looking better, but was by no means Ozzie and Harriet.

Throughout my grade-school and high-school years my father kept food on the table and clothes on our backs through working his shop, The Santa Clara Body Shop. Life was still difficult, much harder for him that I realized at the time, because he couldn’t read and he needed an adding machine to do even simple arithmetic. Add to that he developed a drinking problem and liked to chase women. Mother, being deaf, totally depended on him for income. It became a heavy burden for him, and as the years drew on, the burden became heavier.

Those school years in San Jose are the time he held the most influence over me. He taught me valuable life lessons, molded my character, and also taught me destructive behavior.

My father was a man with many qualities, and the foremost was his tendency to take risks. When people told him he couldn’t do something because he didn’t have the education or the money or the knowhow, he found a way. Once he set his mind on something, his determination grew as strong as tempered steel. As the example above, learning a new career, his fortitude kept him showing up at that mechanic shop, day after day, year after year, doing odd jobs for no pay, because he knew someday it would pay off, some day he would be his own boss. 

More than any man I’ve ever known, he made the most with the hand life dealt him, and he never let his shortcomings stop him from attaining something he truly wanted. I remember learning to ski with him. He refused to pay for lessons or rent proper equipment (which was so typical of him). We simply borrowed someone’s old, dilapidated skis, boots and poles, took the chairlift to the most difficult runs, pointed our skis down hill, and flew until we fell. Then we picked ourselves up, point the skis down hill again, and off we sailed until the next fall. At the end of the first week, we could make it down most of the slopes without falling, and we never returned the borrowed skis. That was how he rolled, and that’s the paramount lesson he taught me—never be afraid to go after something, no matter the obstacles. Just do it, and keep doing it until you become good at it.

Even at an early age I admired him for his determination, his grit. I still do.

The negative side of that equation, however, was that early on, he drummed it into my head that I didn’t need an education to become successful. As long as I didn’t dream too large, reach too high, I could blow off schooling, which is what I did. I became, like him, streetwise, and held a mild distain for people who worshiped in the halls of higher education. I became convinced that I could live a comfortable life by not playing by the rules, or more accurately, by living by my father’s set of bull-in-a-china-shop rules, and living by the seat of my pants. 

So high school was a waste for me, I never cracked a book; I learned little or nothing there. That attitude was fortified during my four years in the US Navy, where I got along quite well without being educated. In the navy I was in my element, surrounded by others like me, being always governed by the officers (men who were college educated). 

It wasn’t until I met my first husband, John Aherns, that my dreams grew larger than my education. John was cultivated, professional, and respected. He worked as a computer analyst, spent money frivolously, and for whatever inexplicable reason, he became enamored by me. Almost over night, he quickly became everything I wanted to be. Because of John, I was no longer content to live a smallish life, held back by the limitations my father had pounded into me. My dreams expanded, like climbing a trifling foothill, only to finally see the glorious mountain range beyond. 

I will always be both grateful and resentful of my father’s lessons. It has taken a lifetime to undo that initial damage, yet he also instilled the determination to never give up, to dream big and make it happen, even if it takes a lifetime.