Beautiful Views from Back Home in Pennsylvania

I’ve shared many posts about the beautiful island of Penang where I currently live. And many have been announcing its accolades over the past few years because of its cultural heritage and terrific food.

Well, now I stumbled across a BBC article about an often overlooked million acres of outdoor ideal-ness called the Allegheny forest in north western Pennsylvania. I can attest to how special this area is. The article talks about route 62 from Warren to Franklin, PA, which I have driven dozens of times in my life, as being one of the most scenic routes in the eastern United States. I have to agree. The route hugs the Allegheny river most of the time and weaves through charming towns and beautiful country valleys.

About 15 years ago, I drove two of my Vietnamese friends through the forest, heading to Warren on a summer’s evening. We counted, if I recall correctly, 24 deer and numerous other small animal sightings during the one hour trip through the forest. They were amazed. I was amazed I didn’t have an accident.

I remember the family trips we took to Titusville to see Drake’s well, the first commercial oil well in the world. I remember walking the trails in Cook’s Forest, and standing on the dam at Kinzua.

If you like the outdoors, hiking, camping, exploring land which has changed little since the time of America’s founding, you should really spend some time in the Allegheny Forest.

Here’s the original article. Check out the beautiful BBC: The US One Million Acre Secret


Album Review: “All At Once” by Phil Keaggy


Celebrated guitarist Phil Keaggy releases his best, solo, vocal album in 23 years. Not since his masterpiece “Crimson & Blue,” has he produced such a joyful and bluesy romp on the fret board. Buy it! Now!


“All at Once” is the vocal album Keaggy fans have long been waiting for. The last twenty-five years of Phil Keaggy’s extensive discography have featured many fine moments; however, most of the top moments have been instrumental, and most of the top vocal moments have been collaborative efforts. “Dream Again,” released in 2006, was his last solo project of all original songs, and it was, regrettably, forgettable. Honestly, it’s an album I never listen to and had even forgotten existed. Before that, similar things could be said about “Inseparable” in 2000. “Phil Keaggy,” released in 1998 was an overall solid effort with many well-crafted tunes, but it lacked the aggressive guitar licks and fun that one expects from a Keaggy release. You really have to go back to “Crimson and Blue,” that beautiful opus to blues rock that made the listen sit up and take note and wonder how and why this album didn’t conquer the world. I traveled eight hours in the spring of 1994 to see Phil and band on the Crimson and Blue Tour, and it is, was, and will ever be the greatest show I’ve ever seen. By my count, Phil played eleven songs that night with a running time two hours. Yeah, it was mad-jamming, and I could barely breathe when it was done. It was phenomenal. These magical moments on his solo albums over the years have been few and far between. But not anymore.

“All at Once” kicks off with two great blues rockers “Mercy” and “Undertow,” but it’s on the third song that you start to get the feel that something special is cooking on this album. “Call the Doctor” is a catchy, jazzy, blues tune with some great backing vocals. I’ve been telling my son to “Call the Doctor” all week until he’s sick of me. This song would feel right at home as one of the best tracks on Keaggy’s 70’s release “Emerging.”

The title track is a terrific ballad which continues to showcase his wonderful playing. What becomes evident at this point, is that the music of this album is put together in a purposeful way to maximize the collaborative efforts of the amazingly talented musicians that Phil is playing with on this album.

One of the best things about a Keaggy concert, besides the ridiculous guitar playing, is Phil’s fun-loving, playful personality. This comes across clearly in several tunes on the album, including the upbeat Beatlesesque love song “La La La Love You,” the tongue-in-cheek and totally awesome “My Guitar’s in Love” and the all-out blues love-fest “Stay Home Baby.” Toes are guaranteed to be tapping!

“Fearless Love” begins with an inticing piano intro and then the guitar kicks in sounding like something off Keaggy’s electric instrumental album “220.” But this is an upbeat vocal track hightlighting both guitar and piano. The instrumental middle segment is one delicious guitar riff giving way to a piano solo. The piano and guitar trade off with each other, prodding each other with an inprovised feel that you’ll want to listen to over and over.

Keaggy taps veteran Ashley Cleveland to sing the tune “Ezekial,” and her deep, full-voice is a terrific complement to this familiar feeling blues song.

“Breathe” is the only instrumental track on the album. It’s a beautiful piece which starts out with an ethereal acoustic feel, until subtle layers of electric guitar give way to Keaggy’s signature guitar riffs. This is clearly reminiscent of his other masterpiece “The Wind and the Wheat.” I love this song so much. I fell asleep to it the last couple of nights. It makes me want to sit on a mountain top and think about the realities of life. Terrific.

The album ends with a classic, guitar rendition of the hymn “I Must Tell Jesus.”

Lyrics: The album’s lyrics are encouraging and uplifting, focusing on issues of Keaggy’s Christian faith and on human relationships.

The Band: Simply top-notch.

Production: All the songs sound warm and alive. Absolutely terrific sounding.

Bottom line: This is an album that any Keaggy fan will treasure. This is also an album for anyone who appreciates blues/pop rock and top-of-the-line guitar playing.


WHERE? From what I can tell, “All at Once” is only available in CD and Vinyl from Phil Keaggy’s website. Phil Keaggy Store

For some reason, it isn’t available (or at least not yet) for download on any site.

But don’t let that stop you. Plop down the $15 and enjoy yourself some intelligent and fun music.

Guaranteed to get your mind off the presidential race!


Blog Writing Keeps Me Writing

I’ve discovered that writing a blog may not reach the world with my ideas, but it does do one thing: it keeps me writing. And as a writer, that’s important.

Blogging is a wonderful distraction from my creative writing which takes up most of my time. For me, creative writing takes a chunk of uninterrupted time, away from the house, away from the world, alone in my thoughts. But blog writing can be done anywhere at any time. I can be sitting in a restaurant with music blaring and I can write a blog. If I was writing creatively, the music would drive me crazy, and I would keep giving the waiters evil stares when a mind-numbing pop song would jolt on, interrupting my writing mojo. But blog writing, ahhhh, it’s relaxed. It’s ten minutes here and ten minutes there. Save draft. Get back to it later. No pressure. No deadlines. No plans. It works according to my schedule and not vice-versa.

Blogging also allows me to explore anything at all. That’s what I particularly like about my blog. I’ll write about everything. Whatever pops into my mind. Yesterday, I had beef on my mind so I wrote about beef rendang. The day before that I was writing about writing over break. Today, I’m writing about blogging.

Riveting. I know.

But I’ve written about history, drama, theatre, movie reviews, politics, travel, culture, religion, books, writing, and anything else I want.

The point being that if I want to write about these topics, it requires me to write. And as a writer, that’s what I consistently need to do: think about new topics, discuss experiences, look at what’s going on in my life, think about what’s coming next, and just processing life as it happens. All of these are essential aspects of being a writer. A diverse interest list will only help the creativity when the writer finds himself back in front of the keyboard ready to tackle the next topic.

So that’s my take on blogging. It’s good for the person. It’s good for the writer.

Perhaps the Best Beef Dish in the World.

The Minangkabau are a people group from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. And man, do they know beef! They make, perhaps, the best beef dish in the world: beef rendang.


Here in Penang, near my house, there’s a small lunch stand called Nasi Padang. Nasi means rice. Padang is a town in West Sumatra. Okay, you know where I’m going with this? This is real Minangkabau beef rendang, and it is absolutely out of this world. It’s expensive. Each piece is RM3 which is about 75 US cents. Okay, so I lied. It’s actually expensive for here, but it would be dirt cheap in a mall food court in America. It would also be the best tasting dish in any food court in North America.

First, let me explain that dish above. Top right is a tasty combination of Indian-spiced cabbage and bean sprouts. They’re terrific. Very top left is a wonderful egg omelet and botton left is the sauce to a great sweet-spicy chicken which is covering the rice. All of it is fantastic, but the true hero of this plate is center-bottom. That’s the three pieces of beef smothered in the most flavourful sauce you will ever taste.

For real beef rendang, they start with a plethora of spices and coconut and grind it all with a pestal and mortar. Liquid, oil, and other delightful items are added to the beef, and it’s slow-cooked for hours until all the liquid evaporates, and you are left with an extremely intense coconut and lemongrass flavor. I can’t properly describe it, because it simply explodes in your mouth. There’s nothing like it, and it coats the fall-to-pieces slow-cooked beef to create a perfect combination of bite and flavor. Oh my goodness! It’s tremendous.

There are many types of beef rendang. All of them good. There are many Malay-Indian restaurants and shops in Penang which make beef rendang. Most of them are liquidy and seems more like a curry. They still taste good, don’t get me wrong. But the original, the Minangkabau beef rendang is the standard. Maybe the world standard for a beef dish.

I love it so much. If you ever get a chance, do not miss it.



A Break from Work to Work

I’m fortunate to be staring down the beginning of nine days off of school. I am a teacher, and I enjoy teaching immensely. But I also enjoy my break times because that means I can concentrate on my other work: my writing endeavors. Here’s what’s on-tap for the coming week:

  • I plan on finishing my latest novel which is only a couple chapters away from a complete first draft. Very close. Can’t wait for this one.
  • I am revising a full-length play I just wrote in the last few weeks entitled “The Last Bastion.” I’m working with a local theatre to arrange a workshop reading of it later this year or in January of 2017.
  • I am still revising some of the scripts for my RLT Players show on December 1-3. I had to pare down one script to fit it under 10 minutes as it will be part of the Short & Sweet Festival in November here in Penang. I revised another one yesterday and sent the new script to the actors. Those poor actors! But I want to get it right!
  • I’m putting the finishing touches on a short musical piece which I’ll be producing for a show in May 2017. It’s entitled “It’s the End of the World and I Love You.”

All of this, and only one week. I’m looking forward to a fun-filled, productive writing week. What will you be up to?

See a Play: Write a Play

On September 24, I saw a terrific rendition of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at the local performing arts center.

Earlier that week, I was starting to formulate a concept for a full-length play. I don’t write too many of them. In 2014 I wrote “The Secrets of the Magic Pool,” and in 2011 I wrote “Romans on the Couch.” I’ve collaborated on other full-length musicals and plays with students, plus I write dozens of short 10-minute plays for a variety of uses. I was starting to latch onto an idea, but remained unsure if it would come to fruition.

Well, Sept 24 arrived. I was riveted to the dialogue and the “zoom-in” focus he provided by intensely going after only four characters. The setting was simple, but the issues of life, dreams, hopes, and family lingered large. As I left the play that night, I decided I would follow Williams and make my new play only about four characters. One setting. One weekend. And I would push and develop the characters with purposeful intent to drive home the overarching themes of the play.

Yesterday, October 9th, I finished my play. (First complete draft, that is.) I became so consumed with the characters and plot that I grabbed every bit of time I could over 14 days to finish this full-length, 17000 word, one-hour and forty-five minute play. Over the weekend, I took Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and finally, Sunday afternoon to finish it. It’s called “The Last Bastion.”

I’m really pleased with it so far.

I don’t want to share any specifics about it yet, but I’ll be pushing it forward over the next few months. I need to do a lot of editing and re-writes, correct character issues, and work on word usage, so that will take some time. Once I’m happy with the overall script, I intend to do some workshop readings of it, hopefully with some professional actor friends, to get feedback for revisions. I want to send it to theatres in 2017 in hopes someone would be interested in debuting it. It’s an adult piece, blending politics, love, religion, culture, and family.

I love productive writing sessions, and they typically come through strong inspiration and solid source material. Thanks T. Williams for the former.

I am very much me. And so is my writing.

I am very much me.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that when I write, I focus on what I know.

I know Asia. Living here for twenty years will do that. Asia is probably forever in my writing DNA, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

What did Hemmingway write? The South Floridian wrote about the Keys in “To Have and Have Not.” (I loved that book.)

The war-time ambulance driver wrote the fantastic “For Whom the Bell Tolls” about the Spanish Civil War.

If you aren’t creating new worlds, it’s a tried and true practice to use what you know.

I remember when I was in college, I wanted to write an autobiographical novel of my life. I failed miserably. I never wrote one word. I wrote a few poems about my life to that point, hoping that it would thrust me wholeheartedly into my earth-shattering novel about an 18 year old who had no experiences.

Yeah, I was naïve. But that’s okay. It discouraged me that I had nothing to write about. Fantasy wasn’t interesting to me. I’ve always been about real-life human issues and emotions, and it just so happened that that 18-year-old had no interesting human issues and emotions.  So I stared at many blank pages until I realized one day that twenty years had passed and I hadn’t written anything.

But what did happen in those twenty years were experiences. Marriage, kids, happiness, sadness, new cultures, new languages, new people, diverse people, interesting people, unbelievable situations, strange food, motorbike trips into the mountains, and a glimpse of every human emotion imaginable.

These experiences have become my tableau. The sheet is no longer clean. It’s stained with all types of deliciously interesting situations. And as a writer, I am grateful for it.

So as I write my first full-length play in two years, I find myself once again using my Asian experience, my political interests, and meld them together in an interesting, fun and engaging new play.

If you are going to write, start with what you know. If it isn’t enough, give it a little time and let life fill in the details until letting yourself loose.