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Going Home

The last time I visited home was in the winter of 2019. It has been a quite eventful four years since then. I have been trapped in China, living through some fairly interesting times, as the old proverb goes.

Now that the Co-VID SARS II restrictions are finally being lifted after a recent flurry of panic that involved daily PCR testing, and finishing the school semester online, I am going to visit home. I had originally considered waiting until the summer, however I will be renewing my work visa at that time, and I did not want to risk running out of time on my current documents. –In order to return to China, I need to show the authorities that I have reason to be in the country; therefore the necessity of maintaining a current Z-class visa.

Although international travel restrictions are being eased, I am still unable to leave directly from Beijing. I shall have to travel down to Shanghai's Pudong airport and leave from there. This adds a lot of stress to my travel plans. I will need to take high-speed rail down to Shanghai a couple of days ahead of my departure date. Then, I will need to take a PCR test so that I can re-enter the United States. The day after that, I board my flight.

I am not exactly looking forward to the journey. But, I have something like three or four years of mail and business piled up at my kid brother's place that needs to be taken care of and cleaned out. I may have to rent a PO Box in Philly to ease the burden on my brother; but we'll see.

I am sure things will be fine once I am home. But it is going to be something of a "working vacation" for me this time. I will not have as much time for fun and socialization as I would like. I have correspondence to review, credit cards and bank cards to collect, licenses to renew, accounts to visit, new electronics to set up, clothing and winter gear to pack, and so on.

There is a lot I would love to bring home to storage. A lot I would love to bring back with me to Beijing. However, since I have to travel between distant cities before even boarding my flight, carrying more luggage than a single traveler can handle alone is simply not feasible.

Furthermore, I have two graves to visit; during the time I have been trapped here in Beijing, both my uncle and my stepfather have died. And a very dear friend has become quite ill, and is possibly in the early stages of dementia. Of course, I knew, when I came to live in China, that Life back home would not simply pause for my convenience. But this is bitter.

And so, I am ambivalent. I look forward to visiting home, seeing family, eating familiar foods (deli!), visiting with friends, and collecting gear that I need to bring back to Beijing with me. But the trip itself? And the constraints that will be on my time? These, I could live without.

Oh, yes—Happy New Year, Merry Christmas—Western and Orthodox– a belated Gut Yontif for Chanukkah, and whatever else I may have forgotten.

As for the obligatory New Year's Resolution, to be broken within the first month or so, I will again promise (probably an empty promise, mind you), to post regular updates here on the blog.

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Beijing Diary

As the more perspicacious of you may have noticed, I have not updated my blog in some time. Things on my end have been less than ideal, so I shall attempt to catch us all up, and attempt to henceforth maintain at least monthly updates with tales of my adventures and endeavors.

In April or May of last year, my agent had called me with news of a new position at another school, with the promise of a far greater salary than my current school could afford to pay me. Now, at first, I resisted; I was comfortable where I was, and my comfort and convenience are more important to me than money. However, I was worn down by her pleading. She went on about how good I was, and that she promised I would at least do the interview. And, she said that a young man is supposed to be ambitious, and if I passed up the chance to improve my position, I would lose respect, and so on. –Never mind that I am no longer a "young man." So, I felt bad about it and accepted.

The initial school she had found for me was a start-up with which she herself was involved. The interview went well enough; the owner was a former principal who dealt with other schools both here and in New England back home, and he even made a number of bullshit promises about pay and position, and assisting to run the business—Er, I mean, "school." Of course, I could at least still remain in Dongcheng District, in the middle of town. There was enough in the deal that I liked that I decided to accept. Especially with my agent urging me on.

Alas, that arrangement fell through, when even after the contract was signed, it had been decided that the project was not sufficiently "stable." But, not to worry—my agent insisted on continuing to try to find another situation for me. There were a couple of interviews, but the offer that I ended up accepting was one offered by a school in Shunyi District. Accepting that deal was one of the worst mistakes I have made over the past two or three years.

Now, to briefly recap–
Last year (2020), what with the Pandemic, there were very few jobs available to foreign teachers. The lockdown was lifting, and many schools were reluctant to hire American teachers, noting the devastation being wrought by the virus in the United States, and the general resistance to sound medical and scientific advice. There had been a modest opportunity available near Dengfeng, a few thousand miles inland from Beijing. I did not want to go, but had resigned myself to it when I was contacted with an offer from what would become my present (well, next to last) school in Dongcheng District in the Fensiting Hutong.
The pay was adequate, but not great; though the post also came with two meals a day at the school, and free accommodation at the teachers' dorms which included utilities, and free WiFi. Another nice thing about the teachers' dormitory was that it was not on the actual school grounds; It was a pleasant ten-minute walk through the hutong that made me feel as though I were not actually living at the school. The environs were pleasant, and within walking distance of most of Beijing's tourist attractions. The school itself was pleasant as well; a small campus, almost intimate, especially by Chinese standards. And, after working at a large school like Liangxiang High School in Fangshan, with forty pupils in a single class, this new school, Beijing International Vocational Educational School, was a wonderful change. With an average of ten students per class, allowing me to see each class thrice weekly, I was able to get to know my students and give them each a measure of personal attention. I came to love this comfortable little niche I had found for myself.

Against this comfortable, if not wildly lucrative gig was then the promised post, noted above, that would pay me at nearly twice as much, and include a small allowance to rent an apartment, plus an eight thousand yuan bonus toward airfare after the completion of the contract for the year. My current school's counter-offer could not quite match the offer from the new school; thirty-five thousand yuan plus a three and a half thousand housing allowance seemed a lot of money to me. I did feel bad about leaving my pupils behind, but what finally sold me on accepting the new offer was the type of position. I was asked to be a homeroom teacher in addition to assisting in developing English language-based curriculum. I was also asked to assist with administrative duties and admissions activities.
When I began my teaching career in East Asia, it seemed that any foreigner could pick up a "white monkey" job teaching English. In those days, you needed little more than native fluency. And being an "English Teacher" once had a certain stigma, especially in Taiwan, because of young Americans and Brits who would backpack around Asia, stop off to teach for a few months and fill their pockets and then disappear into the night, leaving classes and students untended. There was a time I used to dread being known as an English teacher in Asia.
However, I was now being asked to work as a homeroom teacher. Of course, my subject area teaching would be ESL, and I was supposed to have been given administrative responsibility that I did not enjoy then. It made me feel more "legitimate" as a teacher.

Ahhhh, but so often there are large gaps between one's expectations and reality.
O had already felt uneasy leaving my then current position, as I dislike being uprooted every year to move elsewhere. Reminds me too much of my unsettled and poverty-stricken childhood. But foolishly, I accepted the new position, and made ready to make the transition in July of last year.

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Happy Father's Day

My father died on September 3 2001. When I returned from Taiwan, in June of 2001, I stayed with my father in South Philly, in a house on South Carlisle Street. While his health had not been good for the past couple of decades, he began displaying quite worrying symptoms that summer.


It began with a loss of balance. We feared that the problem was neurological, because he kept staggering to his right side. His doctor, however, upon examination, concluded that this was a cardiovascular problem, rather than a neurological one, and so he prescribed treatment as such.

Fearing an oncoming stroke, his cardiologist prescribed Coumadin. He dutifully took the drug as prescribed. Over the next several days, I watched as his health continued to deteriorate. He would bruise easily, and badly. His urine was dark with blood. Small cuts and abrasions would bleed freely, and not clot.

Worried, he returned to the doctor, who sent him directly to the hospital across the street from his offices- St. Agnes. My father sent me home to prepare an overnight bag for him, and I was to return to him in the hospital. However, when I did return, Pop wasn't there. The staff at admitting said that he had collapsed on his way in, and was taken by ambulance to Hahnemann University Hospital.


He spent two weeks in Cardiac ICU, before being moved to his own room. I used to visit him every other day, without fail. The problem, it was discovered, was that he had been mis-dosed on Coumadin. It turned out that the dispensary that supplied him his Coumadin had been unknowingly overdosing him. Their computer system had an error which caused the prescribed dosages of medicines to square. For example, if a patient had been prescribed a 2mg does of something, they actually received 4mgs. If the prescription was for 3mg, they received 9mgs, and so on. My father was not the only one to have suffered thus that year.

It had been especially dangerous for my father, as he already suffered with congestive heart failure, and had done for many years by that time. He'd had his first heart attack at forty-eight, never realizing that he had even had one. He'd had another some years later before realizing the problem, and went in for quintuple bypass surgery, with a surgical "update" to the procedure some ten years later. Now, they tried to flush the drug out of his system at the hospital, but his body had trouble absorbing the vitamin K and anticoagulants they administered to him. His weakened heart was unable to cope with the extra fluid load the Coumadin had produced in his body.


During his fourth week in the hospital, my father was put into an induced coma and put on a ventilator. I became adept at reading his medical charts. I brought in a tape deck, and used to play opera and classical music for him.

There was a brief hour when the doctors tried to bring my father out of sedation, to see if he could breathe on his own. I was able to exchange a few last words with him- though technically he could not speak with the trach in his throat. In the end, though, his heart could not stand the workload, and he died.

It was the one day that week I hadn't gone to visit him. The hospital had called me at home. I was too shocked to do or say anything. They asked if I wanted to come in right away to his room. I declined at the time, but a couple of hours later, I called to go in and see my father again, one last time, just the two of us.

I observed all the duties in the aftermath. I cleaned the house. I covered all the mirrors. I lit the candle. I sat shiva. Family and friends visited. I said kaddish. I mourned the loss of my father.


My father was a man of both strong opinion and caustic wit. He was ever ready with, not merely puns, but smart-ass observations on those around him. Indeed, he was merciless in his criticism, and the humor with which he often delivered it, revealed the stark contempt in which he held all that could not meet with his standards of approval. And he was, moreover, indiscriminate as to where and at whom he aimed his poisonous darts.
I remember that whenever I used to express an interest in anything, or an appreciation of something, he would squelch it mercilessly, and then go on to tell me what I should like. He was always blunt, caustic, and critical. And what would come to upset me in years to come, was the realization that he was usually correct.
When as a child, I enjoyed the Japanese kaiju films that were often shown as Sci-Fi and Horror on Saturday afternoons, he called them stupid and introduced me to dinosaurs instead. Real monsters. And he was right. The idea of real creatures as bizarre and as large as any kaiju was fascinating, sparking an interest in dinosaur paleontology that persists to this day.

Being raised in a family of musicians, singers, and actors, I of course had favorite pieces to which I loved to listen. But usually, if I made the mistake of telling my father that I liked some symphony, concerto, aria, or a particular conductor's interpretation thereof, he would simply reply, "That's no good! Here's what you should be listening to!" If I liked a Bach transcription as performed by Ormandy and Philadelphia, he would steer me toward Stokowski. If I liked Mozart, he would direct me to Mussorgsky. If I liked Prokofiev, he would send me to Tchaikovsky. Sometimes he did it out of sheer contrariness, I have little doubt. But he gave me a love for Merril, Chaliapin, DiStefano, Tibbett, Corelli, Caruso, Reiner, Stokowski, in fact, all the legendary greats of classical music and opera from the 1920s to the 1960s. My musical tastes were shaped by him.
But it seemed that every opinion, interest, or love I expressed was harshly criticized and corrected. My father taught me to keep secret anything I happened to like or enjoy. Never to reveal anything I really loved. I learned to be ashamed of everything I really cared for or desired. Anything that was personal to me was deeply guarded. I learned not to make waves by disagreeing with anyone– at least, not with anyone I liked. I learned to make a secret of those things I really did love.

And what really killed me inside? He was usually right.


When I was three or four years old, I had a Raggedy Andy doll that I loved very much. It had a small music box inside it, and I used to love to cuddle down with it, put my ear on it, and listen to the music box. I loved the mechanical clicks and ticks of the mechanism as much as the tune itself.My father had gotten to hear of it, and was displeased, because "Boys don't play with dolls." So, one day he came to visit at the apartment in which I lived with my mother at 49th and Spruce. He brought a plastic mechanical train for me. It had an orange plastic track laid out in a figure eight. There was a funicular section of raised track, like a hill. It was pretty cute.
But he wanted to take away my Raggedy Andy. I remember him holding it, crushing the entire body of it in one huge hand. I was desperately tugging at one of the arms, trying to get my doll back. Eventually, as neither of us would let go, the arm tore off in my hands. I dropped it and ran, crying. My father laughed. My mother did nothing. What could she do? I never saw my Raggedy Andy again.


I remember being deathly afraid of my father when I was very small. For a long time, I wouldn't so much as get into the car with him unless my grandmother was with me. There was a time when my father flung me across the living room at my mother. Another time, he struck me hard enough to leave a mark that lasted for three days.
I think it was a combination of a few things. My father himself was often beaten by his mother. So, he probably didn't realize what he was doing. I don't think he knew his own strength, either. He did gradually mellow out over the years; but it didn't happen when I was small and helpless.

I do remember petty cruelties. Being a clumsy child, if I stood up, or turned, and happened to knock something over through carelessness, he would sing out, "Michael made a move!" and the like. I think perhaps he was more clueless than malicious. But there were good times, too. My father used to indulge my love for dinosaurs, and science fiction. He used to take us to wonderful eateries and restaurants. He would take us to movies. He tried to be a good father. He always made sure to tell me explicitly that he loved me. It eventually became a thing between us:

"Hey, Mike– guess what."


"I love you."

Eventually, all that was needed was "Guess what…?"

Pop used to say that his own father never had much time for him, and he wanted to make sure he always had time for me, and that I was sure he loved me.


All the terrible things that marked me growing up were regrettable. But my father was never malicious. He did try. He did his best with what he had himself been given in life. My father was not a monster; he was, as my mother used to describe, "a beautiful man with an ugly disease." He certainly had his moments. Many, in fact. Yes, there were good times, too.


I miss him.





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Happy Mother's Day

The day my mother died was a perfectly ordinary day. The world didn't care, nor did it even take notice. It went on, being all sunny and pleasant. It never bothered to stop, or even pause in its rotation. The sun did not hide its countenance, nor did the earth tremble. The only ones to suffer were her husband, her sister, her children, and her close friends. My mother died in 2014. I loved her very much—what son doesn't love his mother, after all? My adult relationship with her was nevertheless complicated—again, what son's isn't?

When I found out that my mother was dying, I had been training at Hanshi's dojo. I received a message form my kid brother that the previous evening, she was unresponsive when her husband tried to rouse her to go up to bed after she'd fallen asleep in her chair.

He gave her a dose of insulin, in case there was a question of her having fallen into a diabetic coma. However, she still did not wake. At least, not to the point of alertness. So, paramedics were called.

They laid her on a stretcher to take her out to the ambulance. She was alert enough to struggle against them. But when she was on her back, she apparently vomited and aspirated it, cutting off her oxygen. It had been estimated that she was choking for four to ten minutes. Although she was still alive by the time she reached the hospital, it was only in the technical sense. She was already brain-dead. One of the classic signs, which even I recognized when I saw her later at the hospital, was her wildly fluctuating body temperature, as her brain could no longer maintain a stable core temperature. Only her autonomous functions were still working, and even then, she had to be intubated and connected to a respirator.

The doctors kept her going for about two weeks, as they tried to eliminate any other possible causes for her condition, hoping that she might recover.

But eventually, the family sat down together, and we decided that it was time to let her go.

I have heard it said in various ways, and in various media, that you should call your mother now while she is sill alive, so that you can let her know that you love her and care about her. That if you did not, you would come to regret it when she passes away, your chances gone forever. This is not true for me.

Over the last five or ten years of my mother's life, I studiously avoided calling her. Ever since the financial collapse of 2008, I had been struggling financially and emotionally, as many of us had been. And about the state of the world in those days, the less said, the better. It seemed that every time I called my mother, there was so little real news that our conversations degenerated into extended kvetching sessions. And after a while, I decided that I did not want to remember my mother in such a way, constantly complaining and commiserating.

What does sadden me is that now, at a time in my life when I can again support myself comfortably (for now), and can claim some little personal success as a published author (albeit a self-published one), I cannot share this with her. All those years, I could tell her what was going wrong, and pour out my bitterness and sadness; but now that there is something not entirely awful to share, something that she might have taken some pleasure in hearing, or even—dare I say—pride—that opportunity no longer exists. And will never come again.

As an adult, I remember watching my mother grow ever older, and more frail, gaining weight that she could not support on her small frame, illnesses of senescence descending upon her.

Often, her birthday gifts to me seemed to indicate that she didn't really know me. Of course, whose fault was that? My own. But I simply could not bring myself to talk with her when there was nothing to talk about except how awful things were. We both suffered for that, I'm sure.

When I was very young, I loved to play "Star Trek." Around the block from my grandparents' house was a school—Toby Farms Elementary School. There had been a particular set of monkey bars with an internal platform midway up the structure, about two meters off the ground. That was my Starship Enterprise set. I was Mr. Spock. Grammom was Captain Kirk, and Grandad was Dr. McCoy—He usually stayed home when Grammom took me out to play, so he was always down in Sick Bay, while I was on the bridge.

But I would never include my mother in this fantasy-play of mine. My grandmother once asked me who my mother would be, when I was assigning roles, and I refused to allow her to join, even though she was never there for those play sessions. Mommy was only allowed to be Mommy. She couldn't be anyone else. She had to be Mom for me.

My earliest memories are not altogether pleasant ones, in case you hadn't noticed by now. I remember having regular night-terrors all my life until about age six. They would wake me from a dead sleep, and send me scampering to my mother's bed, where I would jump in and cower against her. She was my rock and my shelter in those days.

I remember her having a very short temper a lot of the time, in those days. And she cried often. Much of it was, I am sure, borne out of the desperation of our situation. Those were not good days. And I, as a young child, certainly did not make anything easier for her, nor did I appreciate then what she went through for me.

My mother left my father when I was about three. It was, in those days and in those circumstances, a brave thing for her to have done. It was not a good or happy marriage, as I have noted before. She obtained a Ghet, and when we moved out, we were almost destitute.

It had been an unhappy, ill-advised marriage. One which my father's own family tried to discourage my mother from entering in upon, having taken a liking to her. I was told that my parents had often come close to violence with each other, if not actual blows. I know that the abuse was such that my mother had on at least one occasion half-consciously attempted suicide by wrapping her car around a tree on Roosevelt Boulevard. My mother once told me that she had decided on seeking a divorce when she saw me frightened by a butterfly as I sat on the front lawn at my grandparents'. Apparently, I was screaming in terror, and she decided then that she had to get us away.
I really only remember brief images from those days. My mother and I lived briefly on South 19th street in South Philly, and for a short time at 49th and Spruce in West Philly. Finally, when I was about five, we moved to Media— the house at which we lived no longer stands.

Additionally, I was apparently a fairly sickly child, nearly dying on numerous occasions. I'd had two major surgeries before the age of five, and I used to fall ill with high fevers with some regularity. My mother used to aver that in those early days after her divorce, she had thought about giving me up for adoption to a family more financially able to care for me, but that she didn't because she was afraid that I might die, and she wouldn't be able to be with me when it happened.

For a time, we were on welfare. My grandparents helped her find a place to live, and an old, but serviceable, car. Eventually my mother held down three jobs at once, in order for us to make ends meet. I remember my mother once saying that it was difficult, but she wanted to have the extra money so that we could do things like go to the movies, or have a meal out on occasion. And despite limited funds, she always did her best to keep me clothed and fed, and with my grandparents' help, she made sure I had toys. And a very generous and dedicated doctor, Milton Graub, made sure that I had proper medical care, often making house calls, and giving my mother all the consideration he could when it came to bills.

I have an old picture of my mother. It's labelled as Grammom and grandad's first apartment. Mom couldn't have been more than two years old in it. It's a very strange feeling to look at so young a child, knowing that she will become my mother. Knowing what she will look like in her twenties, her thirties, her forties, and beyond, until her death. She's standing there, in a cute little dress, smiling, and laughing for the camera. I wonder what the little child is thinking, that baby who will grow up to become (among other things) my mother. What toys did she play with? Which was her favorite? Who were her friends? What songs did she love? To what music did she dance? What was her favorite food?

So small. So free of care. Did she play at being a grownup? At being a mother? What did she love? What did she fear? When would she feel lonely? What was her favorite food? At that age, she couldn't even know that she would have an end, like all living things.

Did she have a happy childhood? A sad one?

So many questions. But too late to ask any of them. And even if I had the opportunity, would I have the courage to do so?

I remember sitting quietly with my mother to watch Mister Rogers together. And we used to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company as well. And on Saturday afternoons, we watched local horror host Dr. Shock, another favorite of ours.

I don't think I saw her as much as I should have, or perhaps even wanted to.She was so often busy, desperate to keep our little family going with noses above water. I spent a lot more time with my grandparents, and grew very close to them. I wonder if it hurt my mother that I was closer to her parents than I was to her.

I wish I was the kind of person who could remember the good times at least as much as the bad, or hard, times. I wish I could remember all that was best and noblest about her.

I wish I could have made her proud. Oh, she always said she was proud of me. But for what? Mostly undeserved, I think. Just a common maternal reflex. I wish I could share my published writing and reviews with her.

I wish, I wish, I wish…. I wish a lot of things. But wishing can't make anything so. And there's reality to face. And the rest of my life to live. Without her.

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Personal News

I had always imagined that my first heart attack would be presaged by pain. I had always imagined that I would feel that pain under my sternum, like the blow of a sledgehammer. I had always imagined that pain, and then numbness, would radiate down my left shoulder and arm.


But that's not what happened.


My warning was not pain, but fatigue and mild discomfort. I had an odd feeling just below my xyphoid process, as if my heart were doing rapid somersaults, or something like that feeling when you try to swallow a bite of food that's just a bit too large and hasn't been chewed enough. I also had a loss of equilibrium, and I was quite sleepy, despite my having just woken from a night's sleep. My pulse was racing, and I was slightly out of breath, as if I had just been running.


Now, I would sometimes have symptoms like these every now and then, but just that; only once in a while. And usually only one at a time. I would normally pause to bring my breathing under control, calm myself, and be done with it. But on this occasion, I had experienced the symptoms for two or three days. And I could make them go away by simple

breath exercises.


At first, it didn't worry me too much. After all, I'm fat—a fact which doctors never fail to point out to me, no matter the reason I go to visit (Me: Doctor! Doctor! My arm just fell off! Doctor: Ah. Well, you're too fat, you see. Let's take care of that first.). And I have high blood pressure and tachycardia, for which I have been taking medication since about 2016. But this past week, as the symptoms carried on, and I was unable to properly perform my work, I decided that it was time to go to the hospital.


I had gone into work that morning, tired, stumbling, and with that discomfort in my chest. Even my colleagues thought I was looking a bit pale. I begged off work from a supervisor, and went straight to the local hospital, where my minder met me. He got me checked in as per an emergency, then we went up to9 the cardiology department.


Now, this is probably something I should have done a long time ago. Living here in China, my custom has usually been to see my cardiologist when I come home for summer break. He would examine me, and if necessary, update my prescriptions, which I would simply have refilled each month at the local hospitals here in China.


This was, perhaps, bad enough. However, with the viral pandemic which has recently settled upon the planet, and the concomitant restriction of international travel, I have been unable to visit home for about two years, at least. So, if my condition had been changing, or if I had needed to alter my medications,  I would never have known.


Well, my body had just sounded a warning klaxon.


At the office, my blood pressure was found to have been 151/115. And the EKG found sinus tachycardia with premature atrial complexes, left axis deviation, and non-specific ventricular conduction delay. I was then sent for a blood test just to be sure I wasn't actually having an acute myocardial infarction on the spot.


I was prescribed new medication to bring my blood pressure and tachycardia under control; the old meds were no longer working, and who know for how long they had not been? I was also prescribed a concoction of herbal medicine to deal with the physical discomfort I was feeling. A combination of TCM and Western medicine. Well, whatever works. I am scheduled to return in a few days for a follow-up exam to see if the medication is working properly and to see if I have a good chance of continuing my existence.


After two days, the discomfort in my chest is gone, though I am still rather tired. Still—I can walk up to my third floor office at work, so my heart is apparently still functioning adequately. For now.


Of course, I will keep everyone posted. I should be more annoyed  at not being able to finish the writing I want to complete before my death. On the other hand, every one of us will have a full in-box on the day we die, so I should just try to stop worrying about it and do the best I can.


And fear not; I have a plot reserved at Montefiore cemetery near Jenkintown—which, the gods willing, I shan't need for another ten or fifteen years.

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Writing Life

Many writers are often asked about their "writing process," or from whence they get their ideas. I have never been asked either of these questions, and so, in answer to these, and other questions no one has ever asked me, I offer a description of my own "process."

I almost never make use of outlines, and certainly never when embarking upon a novel. I am not a plotter, nor do I like to fly by the seat of my pants. The full shape of a narrative very rarely presents itself to me. I prefer to think of myself as more of a "puzzler," meaning that a narrative idea will normally present itself to my brain like a box full of puzzle pieces being spilled onto a tabletop. I see the pieces, but I have to go through them, turning them over, and this way and that, and try to piece them together until they start forming a picture I can recognize.

I never begin with world-building, or settings, or events, or even characters. When I begin to compose a narrative, I always begin with dialogues. And as the dialogues progress, they flesh out for me the characters participating in it, and the situations about which they are talking. This method helps me to understand my characters, and how they want to be written, and the settings in which they find themselves.

I try never to fully describe my characters physically, because I prefer to leave most of that work to the reader. I might note one or two distinguishing characteristics, but otherwise, I think the readers' imaginations can do a much better job. For example, if I describe someone as beautiful or handsome, well, everyone has their own idea of what they consider attractive. And besides; whenever I have tried to describe a character in detail, they almost never get psychologically fleshed out, nor even earn any significance for the plot of the narrative in which I'd hoped to place them.

I never use the computer to compose anything. My first drafts and their notes are all done with pen and ink, on paper. I find myself unable to create anything on the keyboard. I will also often do my initial revisions with pen and paper as well. Once I have a serviceable first draft that hits all the major plot points I have envisioned, then I will transcribe everything onto the computer, whence I can then edit. For my second and third drafts, I like to use a program called Scrivener, as it makes editing and organizing easy and efficient. Once I have a serviceable draft with which I am satisfied, I then compile a word doc from the Scrivener file, and I then have a proper text to edit.

I am remarkably undisciplined. My inspirational flashes normally compel me to a mere five or ten minutes of solid work at a time. Perhaps half an hour, if I am really lucky. So I tend to write in bursts, and I am easily distracted besides—unless I am particularly focused on a particular task, in which case I can work away for hours without even noticing.

Another fault of mine is impatience with the whole process, being eager to get down on paper what I want to say. And the modern process of independent publishing does me no favors here. There was a time in which I might write a single page, stop, and go back over to edit. And then, in the middle of that edit, I would stop, go back to the beginning, and start re-editing the edit. And then, stopping during that edit, and—well, you get the idea. I actually only learned when working on my first novel, to force myself to vomit up as much as I can onto the page before going back to edit, re-write, and polish my stories. But due to my lingering remnants of my lack of focus, I have easily gone through six revisions/editions of my first novel, Medousa.
Sometimes, it was a matter of correcting simple errors that more thorough copyediting would have found. Sometimes, it was more a matter of correcting thematic and developmental errors. I have learned through this to invest in good editors, formatters, and beta readers. The making of a good book is in large part down to the editing.

That said, I have become somewhat leery of editors lately. Not that one can ever afford to forego this part of the process; but one should be careful to select a good editor who will not simply take your money and say "Yeah, it's good," without actually giving you anything of substance for your book If you can't afford a professional editor, at the very least, you'll need to find a merciless critical reader.

Once you receive your feedback, it's up to you how you want to use it. As Neil Gaiman once said, "Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

And that, dear readers, is my "process!"


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Beijing Diary

Earlier this past week, on the morning of Wednesday 7th April, I finally got my first vaccine dose. Beijing has begun to vaccinate eligible foreigners, and my school made an appointment at the vaccine center set up in the Ditan Athletic Stadium. 

As usual, Chinese efficiency was on full display; even with the half hour waiting period after the shot, it still only took about an hour for the entire procedure. The queues were not particularly long, as there are apparently not as many foreigners in Beijing as there used to be before the pandemic. Anyway, after filling out several forms for identification, tracking, and consent, I got the actual shot. More forms to sign, and the individual dose I received was matched to my identification forms for the record, and then after the jab, I was sent out to the waiting area. 

Everyone who received the vaccine was required to wait for thirty minutes so that in case any adverse effects were observed, we could be treated right away. The area was a fenced in section of the gym floor, surrounded by modular walls of the type you see in modern office cubicles. The seats were basic stools, rather than folding chairs. To me, it looked and felt very much like sitting shiva. I caught up on a bit of reading, but otherwise, it was dull and uninteresting. It was odd to see other Westerners around the room; I so rarely see them these days.

Suffering no ill-effects, I left. While my morning class schedule had been cleared for this, I still had afternoon classes to attend. but within the next hour, I became extremely tired. In fact, I was completely enervated. I managed to get through my classes without falling asleep, but even my kids saw that something was wrong. When I got back to the teachers' dorms, I fell asleep from about 16:00 to 05:00. The next day still saw me quite fatigued, and I used a cane for a slight loss of equilibrium. I had a mild headache, a slight case of sniffles, and loose bowels. But I survived.

The day after that, I was fine. And I am scheduled to receive the second dose on the 28th of April.


I have a flight reserved for July 8th to return to America for a month-- assuming Delta (my airline) has resumed flights by then. I am hoping that things improve in the United States to the point that I will be able to visit. My return to China is scheduled for early August, rather than the last week thereof; I will need twenty-one days to sit in quarantine before I'll be able to get back to my flat. But by then, I should be able to begin work at my new job. Of course, if Delta does not resume its schedule of flights, well then, I shall just have to wait a bit longer.


In any case, stage one of my immunization has gone well. 

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Beijing Diary

This weekend is a Trifecta of holidays here in Beijing! The eighth day of Passover, Easter, and the Qing Ming Festival. I assume that most of my readers already have a certain amount of familiarity with Passover and Easter; Qing Ming is the traditional Chinese "tomb sweeping" festival. Most Chinese families will go to their families' graves, to tidy up the tombs, pay their respects, and sometimes have a small picnic there, leaving offerings for the spirits of the ancestors. Often, incense and ghost money will be burnt. Being neither religious, nor ethnically Chinese, the big benefit to me is a three-day weekend. 

But, on to this month's update, including what is for me, Big News:


 About a month ago, I was contacted by the recruiter who brought me up to Beijing from Ningbo, and was presented with a rather generous offer for the next academic year. After much deliberation, and several second thoughts, I have decided to accept the offer.
Last year, what with the Pandemic, there were very few jobs available to foreign teachers. The lockdown was lifting, and many schools were reluctant to hire American teachers, noting the devastation being wrought by the virus in the United States, and the general resistance to sound medical and scientific advice. There had been a modest opportunity available near Dengfeng, a few thousand miles inland from Beijing. I did not want to go, but had resigned myself to it when I was contacted with an offer from what would become my present school in Dongcheng District in the Fensiting Hutong.
The pay was adequate, but not great; though the post also came with two meals a day at the school, and free accommodation at the teachers' dorms which included free WiFi. The environs were pleasant, and within walking distance of most of Beijing's tourist attractions. The school itself has been pleasant as well; a small campus, almost intimate, especially by Chinese standards. And, after working at a large school like Liangxiang High School in Fangshan, with forty pupils in a single class, this new school, Beijing International Vocational Educational School, was a wonderful change. With an average of ten students per class, allowing me to see each class thrice weekly, I was able to get to know my students and give them each a measure of personal attention.
The post I am being offered will pay me almost twice as much, and include a small allowance to rent an apartment, plus an eight thousand yuan bonus toward airfare after the completion of the contract for the year. My current school's counter-offer was almost as good, and I do feel bad about leaving my pupils behind; but what finally sold me on accepting the new offer was the type of position. I am being asked to teach AP History in addition to assisting in developing English language-based curriculum. I am also being asked to assist with administrative duties and admissions activities. In other words, I am being asked to become part of the administration as well as mere teaching staff. But it is the subject that appeals to me.
When I began my teaching career in East Asia, it seemed that any foreigner could pick up a "white monkey" job teaching English. In those days, you needed little more than native fluency. And being an "English Teacher" once had a certain stigma, especially in Taiwan, because of young Americans and Brits who would backpack around Asia, stop off to teach for a few months and fill their pockets and then disappear into the night, leaving classes and students untended. There was a time I used to dread being known as an English teacher in Asia.
However, I am now being asked to teach History, a subject I have read in University, and for which I still have great interest. Of course, I will also be able to teach a certain amount of E.S.L., and I will be given administrative responsibility that I do not enjoy now. It makes me feel more "legitimate" as a teacher.
Still. It is not easy to leave my current position. And I dislike being uprooted every year to move elsewhere. Reminds me too much of my unsettled and poverty-stricken childhood.

And so, I am now preparing myself to this new adventure, as it is only a few months away. 


I finally this week also received word regarding the CoVID-SARS II vaccine. Presumably, I will be able to get it soon, but it must be done through my employer. I do not know now whether it will be through my present school or if it will have to wait for my new school. The process of my work-visa transfer is supposed to begin in June, though I will be working at my old school until June 30th. I was sent an informational flyer from my school's administration:

COVID-19 Vaccination for Foreigners in Beijing Started
Acting on the State Council's instruction, Beijing has started COVID-19 vaccination for
foreign nationals in the city.
Foreign nationals within the age group specified below may, following the principle of
voluntary participation, giving informed consent and assuming personal responsibility for
risk, take COVID-19 vaccine.
The following are answers to TEN most asked questions by foreign nationals in Beijing:
What is the age requirement for COVID-19 vaccination?
Foreign nationals at the age of 18 and above in Beijing are eligible for COVID-19
What type of vaccine will be used?
China's domestic inactivated SARS-CoV-2 vaccines will be used, and two doses are required.
How to make an appointment for vaccination?
Foreign nationals who wish to be vaccinated may check notices issued either by their
employers or their residential community offices, and take vaccine in a planned way.
Generally, foreign nationals working in Beijing should make appointments through their
employers; foreign teachers and students in colleges and universities should make
appointments through such institutions, and other foreign nationals in Beijing should make
appointments through their residential community offices. After appointments are made,
foreign nationals may take vaccine nearby as arranged by local district authorities.
What documents should be provided for vaccination?
Foreign nationals should provide valid documents when making appointments and present
their passports and valid residence permits at the vaccination site. Please make sure that
relevant documents are valid on the date of taking the second dose.

What papers should I sign?
Before taking vaccine, you should sign both a form of informed consent and a statement of
bearing personal responsibility for all risks associated with vaccination. Please take necessary
precautions and inform the vaccine giving personnel of your health condition so that they can
decide whether you can take vaccine.
Should I pay for the vaccine?
Foreign nationals who have joined Beijing's social medical insurance scheme may take
vaccine free of charge by presenting due insurance document on the vaccine taking site.
Those who have not should currently pay a charge of 93.5 RMB per dose.
What care should I take after taking vaccine?
You should stay at the vaccine taking site for 30 minutes of observation and may then leave if
you have no adverse reaction. Keep the injection point dry on the day of vaccination and
maintain personal hygiene. You should immediately seek medical help and alert the vaccine
provider if you develop a persistent fever.
How do I get the vaccination certificate?
Beijing Health Kit (Jian Kang Bao) mini-app for people from outside the country will soon
have a new feature of printing the COVID-19 vaccination certificate, which foreign nationals
may access after taking the second dose.
Do I need to wear a mask after being vaccinated?
Vaccination will produce immunity from COVID-19 and greatly reduce infection risks.
However, no vaccine is 100% effective; some people may have insufficient antibodies after
taking vaccine and they can still be vulnerable to infection, especially when an immunologic
barrier is not yet created. So it is important that you should wear masks, wash hands regularly,
and keep social distance.
Do I still have to take nucleic acid test after being vaccinated?
Can my vaccine taking certificate substitute for nucleic acid test report? [Short answer: No]


I will keep you all posted.



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Beijing Diary

Today marks the first day of the new semester here at the Beijing International Vocational Education School. I have been working here since September first of last year, and I have been enjoying my time here and my interactions with my pupils. During the previous school year, I taught at Liangxiang High School (affiliated with Beijing Normal University), where I saw roughly twenty lecture-hall sized classes per week. Here at B.I.V.E.S., I have five classes, each of which I see three times per week, and with an average of twelve students per class, as opposed to forty, I am able to give my kids much more personal attention than I used to.


Anyway, before I digress further, I have been on break for about six weeks. The end of last semester was rushed, as new coronavirus outbreaks had been detected to the southwest of the city. From the AP at that time:


BEIJING — More than 360 people have tested positive in a growing coronavirus outbreak south of Beijing in neighboring Hebei province. China's National Health Commission reported Sunday that 69 new cases had been confirmed, including 46 in Hebei. The outbreak has raised particular concern because of Hebei's proximity to the nation's capital. Travel between the two has been restricted, with workers from Hebei having to show proof of employment in Beijing to enter. Hebei has recorded 183 confirmed cases and an additional 181 asymptomatic cases over the last eight days. China does not include those who test positive but do not show symptoms in its official case count. Almost all of the cases are in Shijuazhuang, the provincial capital, which is 260 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of Beijing. A handful have also been found in Xingtai. Both cities have conducted mass testing of millions of residents, suspended public transportation and restricted residents to their communities or villages for one week.


As a result, the Spring Festival-- what most of us in the West know as "Chinese New Year--" was rather sedate for me. I did not go out unless absolutely necessary, just in case. Many of the tourist destinations which I had wanted to visit were closed. Indeed, they had already had tight restrictions on how many people could visit, and the authorities were very strict on tracking. That said, I still enjoyed my break. I was able to get a lot done regarding my writing (not the least of which was, of course, this nifty new website). I was fortunate to be allowed to stay in my accomodations for the break; normally, when the school closes, so do the teachers' dormitories. However, due to the latest viral outbreak, it was deemed safer to allow us to remain where we were, rather than risk the spread of the contagion.


During that first week of the break, it was only a break for me, as a teacher. The administrative staff still had another week or two of preparation for the holiday. One of the things they organized was vaccinations for all the teachers in the school. I had been pleased to be included in that, since I am, technically, a front line worker. The entire school staff met at a designated neighborhood vaccine station, and we waited patiently for a few hours for our turn. However, when it came time to actually receive the shot, I and two other foreign teachers were turned away because of an administrative glitch. 


Apparently, the computers were unable to scan in data from our passports. For the other members of staff, it was no problem; all Chinese citizens have national ID cards. But I and the others, obviously, did not. We were turned away, much to my annoyance. I had been told since that they will try to arrange something for us once the semester begins again, but I have yet to hear anything. What made it all the more annoying was what happened the following week.


Because of the new outbreaks, Beijing set up mass testing for all people dwelling within the city. An amazing undertaking, rather like performing mass testing for the Greater Philadelphia Region or New York's Five Boroughs in a single day. But they did it. We all went that morning to the staging areas assigned to us according to district and neighborhood. I went to an outdoor testing area in the park around the old Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing (I live in the Fensiting Hutong of Beijing's Dongcheng District). It took less than three hours, and when I went in to be swabbed for collection, they had computers that were able to scan the data from my passport, and use that as my ID card. In fact, not only was I easily included in the testing, I received my results from the Department of Health the next day via text. --Negative, thankfully.


During my time off, I have tried to keep busy, despite my penchant for procrastination. I have been re-editing the books I have already published through Amazon/CreateSpace so that I can re-issue them under my own imprint, and get them into local brick-and-mortar shops. I have completed my second edition of Medousa, and a new edition of my memoir previously published under the title Wednesday's Child. I am continuing to work on new books as well. There will be another myth-based fantasy novelette, another memoir focusing on my time living in China and Taiwan, as well as my time in the martial arts, and a book of, you'll forgive the term, meditations, which I have been putting together out of my morning meditative essays from the first ninety days I began practicing Stoicism. 


I decided to go with the services provided by BookBaby, as they are well spoken of in the independent writing community, have excellent customer service, and because they are a local Philadelphia company. However, I am discovering that doing everything on my own can be quite expensive. And so, the process is going a lot more slowly than I had hoped it would. All of the services that KDP would have handled, I am doing on my own. (I have a button on my website that will allow contributions, should anyone in these dire times feel that their money would be better spent helping me publish my work instead of paying for rent, food, or medical care. I also began to set up a Patreon page; but although I myself support several artist/writers who are putting out web comics, I have no idea what I could offer as a slightly more traditional writer with no talent for artwork. What kind of rewards could I offer? I'm not sure I am prolific enough.) So, the upshot is that my books will be coming out, as well as new work, but it will not be anytime soon– by which I mean, anywhere from six to eighteen months. Part of the problem is that I am financing everything myself out of my own paychecks. But, enough whining. The "original editions" will still be available on Amazon.


It is my hope that, as far as the pandemic goes, things will be under control to the point that I will be able to visit home over the summer break in July and August. I was unable to return home last summer, for obvious reasons, and there is quite a lot that has piled up for me to deal with at home. One of the tings I am hoping to do is visit a few local book shops to request that they stock my work. And of course, there will be visits to various doctors, a visit to my storage locker for clothing and equipment, picking up eighteen month's worth of mail at my kid brother's-- It'll be a busy vacation, if I can make it back.


But now, it's time to prepare for the first week of classes!


See you again soon on these pages. .

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