An Email from Tunisia

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Recently, a young blogger from Tunisia emailed me on Goodreads requesting a copy of Detour from Normal for review. My first thought was: “What do I have to gain by spending $30 for costs and shipping to send a book to a total stranger in Tunisia?”

Then, I remembered a salesman that rang our doorbell not long ago. When I opened the door, he entertained and pitched me so convincingly that I bought his product, despite the fact that I didn’t need it. I wrote back and asked the kid to sell me on the idea. The next day, I received a reply.

“Well, Mr. Ken, when I first read the information on your book, I said to myself: ‘This is definitely a book I should read before dying.’” The young man described his love of mystery, madness and engineering and went on to say: “…and guess what sir, your book matches exactly what I love and I’d be extremely happy to have it.” He informed me that he would have bought it online, but that he was only seventeen and not allowed to do so, and that the local libraries only carry books in Arabic and French. His email ended with this statement: “I don’t have any means of getting the book but from you, sir.”

Part of my message in Detour from Normal is that the internet erases all differences of race, culture, language and belief and connects us as human spirits with the same basic dreams and desires. How cool is it that a seventeen year old from Tunisia won me over just like that salesman? On top of that, this young blogger has nearly 400 followers already and his blog is barely started. He must have something positive going on.

“Good for him!” I say. I’m supporting his passion and encouraging him to keep connecting with humanity, breaking down barriers as he goes. I hope there are many more young people in the world equally willing to fearlessly broaden their horizons by contacting someone separated by oceans, continents, language, culture and beliefs, and become part of their world, if only for a moment.

Mohamed, your book is on the way.

 

Image courtesy of Giuseppe Bongiovanni, Flikr

Sashi and Alisha Come to Life

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A few years ago, I dreamed of a small disabled child rescued from certain death by an elephant. In the dream, the child and elephant become best friends and share many adventures. When I awoke, I rushed to my computer and recorded the dream. Months passed. In early spring of 2013, my youngest daughter, Hailey, announced that she wished to volunteer for a month in Nepal. Not being ones to stand in the way of our fearless adventurer, we scraped money together for the trip and allowed her to sign up. In June of 2013, our 16-year-old daughter flew unaccompanied around the world to Nepal.

For two weeks in a small town not far from the Chitwan Jungle, Hailey stood beside surgeons in a teaching hospital, asking questions as they operated. The conditions there appalled her. With no air conditioning, the operating room was sweltering. Sanitizing instruments between surgeries involved a few squirts of Windex, time permitting, otherwise, they rinsed them with cold running water. Hailey’s next assignment involved teaching English to young children near Kathmandu, but first, she and other volunteers seized an opportunity to explore the Chitwan Jungle.

During her adventures, Hailey posted Facebook updates religiously. Imagine my surprise one day when a photo of her riding an elephant bareback arrived on my timeline. The synchronicity was clear. I dusted off the story and approached it with new zeal. Characters broadened and took on names: Sashi, a real elephant in Nepal, and Alisha, meaning “protected by God.”

Public speaking always frightened me. A character in my newest novel wanted to improve his speaking skills. Perhaps sharing that journey would benefit me. In mid 2013, I joined Toastmasters. I survived the first few speeches, but the requirements for the next speech stumped me. That speech involved vocal range and variety. Wondering what I might present, I thought of Sashi and Alisha. I dusted off the story once more to fulfill the speech requirements. When the time came to present, I stomped like an elephant, hissed like a snake, and blew like the wind. I spoke feebly as a sickly Alisha and thunderously as powerful Sashi. As I delivered that speech, I realized that Sashi and Alisha had come to life. At that moment, I decided to publish Sashi and Alisha.

In mid-October 2014, my editor informed me of an opportunity to pitch a children’s book to a publisher for ten minutes on November 15th. Having been through several rounds of editing by then, the manuscript of “Sashi and Alisha” was ready. I knew nothing about pitching children’s books, but was up for the challenge. To my dismay, I learned that the pitch required a full mock-up of the book–with artwork! I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an engineer: I create mechanical drawings with Autocad, and electronic schematics with Altium. In a pinch, I can draw something crude with Microsoft Paint.

As I wondered what to do, I realized that Nepal was a beautiful place. I searched the internet and found a treasure trove of photos of Nepal, many from the Chitwan jungle. The solution was obvious. I just needed a mock-up. This wasn’t a book to sell. I needed something convincing enough to get me to the next level. For the last two weeks, I worked long and hard downloading images, cutting, pasting, and manipulating. I’m happy to say that it resulted in an unexpected work of art that I’m very proud of. Today, I’d like to announce that I finished the mock-up! This image is one of my favorites from the mock-up. Wish me luck with my pitch on 11/15!

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In Search of a Priceless Gem

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I received a two star review a few days ago, so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to talk about writing. I could give you my opinion of that reviewer, and why she gave me that review, but the fact is you cannot please everyone.

You also cannot shrug those reviews off. Readers are your customer. You must instead ask, “How can I do a better job?” If 20% of your readers give negative feedback, explore how you might improve customer satisfaction to lower that number to 10%. That bad review could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Basketball players sometimes fret about missed shots. I disregard the missed shots and focus on making a swisher—a shot that passes through the hoop without touching the rim or backboard. Swishers have a pleasing sound that screams bulls-eye! Even with closed eyes, you can appreciate a swisher. On your writing journey, do not sweat the missed shots, and treasure the swishers.

Being a writer demands risk taking and dedication. Open doors you wouldn’t normally open. Ask questions you’re afraid to ask. Say yes to challenges you’re terrified of. Write at work. Write in the restroom. When your muse is on fire, never say no to it even if it is 3AM. Write every chance you get and always strive to improve.

Do not be afraid to discard a paragraph, chapter, or entire manuscript, and start over. Accept that most of what you write is garbage, but hidden in that garbage is a priceless gem. You may have to go through a truckload of garbage to find it, but when you do, you will be glad that you never gave up.

Whether it is a blog post or a novel, do not be in a rush to publish. A typical novel goes through four rounds of editing. Blog posts deserve equal scrutiny. Slow down and enjoy the ride. The finished product will reflect it. I found a university creative writing instructor, who for a very reasonable fee reviews every important piece that I write. Her assistance is priceless, and she welcomes the extra income and a chance to help a fellow writer.

After reading that two star review and making note of anything I could improve, I reread a few of my five star reviews and reminded myself why I chose to write in the first place.

 

Image courtesy of Toshio

Survivor

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Imagine being swallowed alive by a python—the darkness, the smell, the inability to move as you are tortuously crushed, and asphyxiated. That’s exactly what happened to the pet in this story. Her name was, well, she had no name. Her life as a pet was short-lived, as she was never intended to be a pet at all. Purchased from a pet store under that guise, her real fate was to be dinner for that Python.

One Saturday a few weeks ago, our pet rat, Emmy, lost a long, difficult battle against illness. Our family used to raise guide dogs, and we learned from parting with a beloved dog every year that the grieving process is greatly shortened if you get a new pup when you send the older dog back to guide dog school for final training. We weren’t embarrassed at all to end the grieving process quickly. So, right after giving Emmy her last rites, and burying her in the small rat cemetery under the Ficus tree in our back yard, we piled into our van, and headed to a local pet store to find a new rat to love.

At first, we looked at a fresh batch of medium female rats, all in the same large aquarium, but they had not yet been handled, and were extremely skittish. It was difficult to discern their personalities, and dangerous to hold them because they could easily be dropped. The young male employee assisting us asked if we’d be interested in a rescue rat. We agreed to look at the one they had, a female isolated from the others in a small aquarium.

“We call her Leftovers,” The young man said. “She was purchased by a customer, and fed to their pet Python. She must not have sat well with the snake because it regurgitated her. The irate customer returned her to our store, still dripping in snake saliva, and demanded a refund. She spent two weeks at the vet after that battling a severe respiratory infection that she’d gotten from breathing in snake, uh, whatever a snake has inside.”

I don’t know how my wife and daughter felt, but I have incredible respect for survivors, and I felt a connection to that rat right away. I convinced them that she was the rat for us. We shelled out a whopping $3 for the rat that was formerly snake food, took her home with us, and renamed her Mireille (pronounced me-RAY), a French name that means miracle. Nowadays, Mireille can be found almost every evening running around on the family room sofa, grooming herself next to my wife, Beth, or snuggled next to Beth’s leg asleep, as Beth lovingly pets her head, ears, and neck with a finger.

Many pet owners lose a pet, and are so grief-stricken that they vow to never own another. As we learned, grief lasts only as long as you let it, and is greatly shortened by love. There are many rescue animals in this world, some as small as a rat, who desperately need your help. If you are grieving over a lost pet, consider ending that grief by rescuing one of these animals, and giving it a second chance. Without your help, it will be euthanized, or even worse, fed to a snake. Your life will be forever changed by the love of your new companion, and your grief will be forgotten in no time. As a bonus, you’ll be surprised to find that instead of dwelling on grief, you will remember all the wonderful times you had with your former pet.

Flowers

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I’m thrilled that you’ve come to visit my Blog, and read what’s on my mind. Since I am a writer, I may occasionally share an interesting story here with you. If you’ve read Detour from Normal, you know that I am also a dreamer. I might share some of those dreams now and then. In short, I’m going to go where my mind leads me. I’m sure it will be a fascinating journey. Without further ado, here is my first post, an interesting one about flowers…

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about one thing: flowers. A plant cannot see, yet it produces flowers in every color of the rainbow. A plant cannot smell, yet it produces complex aromatics which smell for great distances. To complicate things further, flowers pollinated during the day are very colorful, and have a sweet aroma to attract bees, and butterflies. Flowers pollinated at night are principally white, and produce a pungent aroma to attract moths, and bats.

The mystery continues with the seed. Plants cannot feel the wind, yet a dandelion produces parachutes so that the wind will carry its seeds away, and a maple tree produces a perfectly balanced helicopter blade nearly as complex as a bird wing, enabling the wind to catch its seeds, and set them gloriously spinning toward a new home.

Evolution teaches us that a flower is a result of random mutation.  But an organism that cannot see producing color from organic pigments, and consistently pure aromatics when it has no concept of smell seems impossible.

The myriad cells of our bodies work in tandem without our conscious knowledge addressing every detail of keeping us alive. Those same symbiotic relationships exist in nature, as if every ecosystem is a living entity in itself with a secret system of communication to maintain homeostasis.

Based on this, I can only draw one conclusion: plants are aware. They don’t have a brain or a nervous system, but they know that in their particular environment, bats will be the best pollinators, or moths, or bees, and they are perfectly optimized for those creatures olfactory and vision systems.  And they know to harness the power of the wind to spread their seeds.

Some people attribute these miracles to God or Intelligent Design, but to me those labels are merely a rubber stamp that really says UNKNOWN, and whose purpose is to lessen the discomfort of our ego. I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that I don’t know all the answers. My curiosity tells me that there is something going on, and that even though plants have no brain or obvious intelligence, and no way of sensing their environment, they know about it, and they interact with it all the time.

Somewhere out there another person exists, perhaps even more curious, knowledgeable, and skilled than me. One day, that person will find the answer, and with luck, I will still be around to appreciate the wonder of their discovery.

Image by Digital Cat

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