Upon Reading the First Half of Atlas Shrugged

645,000 words. 1200 pages. Ayn Rand’s classic epic, first published in 1957, is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, and – in my opinion – a thoughtful demeanor to allow it to resonate.

I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I had even bought a paperback copy and had it sitting impressively on the shelf for five years. A few months back, I decided that it would be my goal, my task, my yearlong commitment, if need be, to actually read the thing.

Well, I’m nearly halfway through it. And my thoughts?

It’s remarkable. The prose is not the most elegant. It can get bogged down at times with a lot of details. But my goodness, it’s easy to see why this novel has had such a profound impact on the 20th century. And reading this with pandemic America and runaway bureaucracy and businesses struggling to find workers as the backdrop, it is almost frightening to realize how this book saw into the future.

First the terrific title. What would happen if that which holds the world on its back (Atlas) decided to shrug with indifference one day? What would happen if the innovators were forced out of the market? What would happen if the great men and women of industry would cease to produce? What would happen if the visionaries of society would no longer – or perhaps more precisely – no longer be allowed to pursue their dreams? What would it do to prosperity? How would it affect society?

There are some truly remarkable passages that I have dog-eared so I can revisit at some point. Some that have sparked writing ideas of my own. Others which are stewing in my mind as I try to understand their philosophical underpinnings.

This is a book of passion: passion for work, passion for love, passions between two of the remaining pillars of industry who will not be bullied into kneeling to the alter of sacrifice for the common good. Because they know, that sacrifice for the common good never achieves its goal. It’s the great debate of intentions vs results. Intentions to improve society mean nothing if those actions actually end up destroying it in the end. You know, the old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are some amazing speeches in this novel. A couple I wouldn’t mind memorizing myself and developing them into dramatic soliloquys. The messages of these speeches are unmistakably modern. Speaking directly to the vast entrenched bureaucracy which has been conditioned to ignore such messages and warnings.

I have chosen to read it slowly. I’m glad I did. I’m always eager to continue, but I also like to pause and allow it to ruminate. That’s a mark of a truly great book.

As I wade into its second half to truly discover “Who is John Galt,” I can’t help but thinking, with a sigh, where is John Galt? The world of 2021 might need your services.

(Full review when finished – Give me a few months.)

Three Cheese Pizza & Vietnam

I love to make pizza. Yesterday, I made a simple three cheese pizza. Here are the cheeses.

Mozzarella, gouda, parmesan. How I came to this combination has its roots in my ten years living in Vietnam. Before I explain, let’s look at the final product.

Delicious. I’m not afraid to tell you. You might wonder how gouda ended up on my pizza.

I moved to Haiphong, Vietnam in the summer of 1994. This was shortly after the U.S. had lifted the embargo against Vietnam. Yes, the embargo originating in the Vietnam War nearly three decades earlier. If you’ve been to Vietnam in the last fifteen years, you would not have recognized the Vietnam of 1994. It was slowly emerging out of severe poverty and an ’80s decade of turmoil and despair. Just ask a Vietnamese about the “thoi bao cap” – the time of state-sponsored economy – and they will tell you stories. All sad. Don’t ever wish for a government controlled economy. But that’s for another day.

When I arrived in 1994, I called it Vietnam BC – Before Coca-Cola. That will tell you the lack of foreign goods and influence at the time. As I got accustomed to the new foods – I was not an adventurous eater at the time – I longed for some American staples and comfort food to get me through. They were hard to come by. Cheese – especially – was difficult if not impossible to find. Milk and dairy was never part of the Vietnamese diet, so we just had to get by without it. On a trip to Hanoi, we once found the “Laughing Cow” processed cheese. You know the round, soft, overly-processed stuff that might taste okay on a cracker. Well, once we decided, out of desperation, to make Laughing Cow Cheese Pizza. It did not go well. At all. In fact it was disgusting. We had to live without pizza.

Until the day I shall always remember. I was riding my bicycle in the center of town and I passed a small shop with a refrigerated glass display case. I saw something round and orange on the inside. I stopped to inspect. It looked like a massive block of cheese. Gouda. At that time, I had never heard of gouda but discovered it was from the Netherlands. Okay, Europeans know their cheeses. Let’s try it. I took home a chunk, and upon first bite it had that taste. Cheese. Real cheese. Heavenly.

With the newly found goods, a pizza couldn’t wait any longer. It could not have been worse than Laughing Cow. Gouda shredded nicely. Pizza went in the oven. It melted wonderfully. It came out of the oven. It smelled incredible. We ate. Instantly in love. We had pizza. Real pizza. Gouda cheese pizza. We would survive.

As time went on, other cheeses became available, but we had become so enamored with gouda that it continued to make it onto our pizza. And I soon learned that it blended well with mozzarella, giving it a little more vibrant flavor.

To this day, I love to mix gouda on my pizza and I have a desperate younger self who used what was available to thank. Give it a try.

Cast the Flies Away

The other day I was in the middle of a drama class when a student pointed to my hand. It was bleeding. Apparently, in the throes of drama combat, I had ripped off a chunk of skin from the back of my hand. I had no idea what I did. No matter, a tissue and pressure took care of it after a while.

Sure enough, a couple days later, a nice scab had formed – just the way nature intended. The injury, the badness, the scar was still there, but it was healing. I thought nothing of it.

A couple days later – today, actually – I was at the swimming pool getting that vitamin D in the morning sun when I noticed an irritating fly doing his thing around me. You know, bothering me. Zooming around like a fighter pilot – quick attacks – annoying flyovers – the consistent buzzing impervious to swatting or yelling. After a few minutes of sustained attack, it became obvious that this fighter pilot was not going in a random pattern. He had found a permanent landing pad. A runway of decay. Yes. My scab. The fly couldn’t get enough of my scab.

Swat. Back to the scab. Swat. re-circle and in for a landing. Swat. Swat. Futile. If I wanted to do any reading, I just needed to allow the pest to enjoy my scab. I did.

But my brain didn’t stop there. I thought of a quick parallel to life. A mini-lesson, will you. Isn’t this fly like some people? They look for the wound, the scab, the weakness, the vulnerability and that’s where they land?

I talked to the fly. “Fly, look at my body. I’m in my swim suit. There are many other more desirable places to land rather than the scab, isn’t there? Why pick the worst part? Why not enjoy something better?”

The fly didn’t respond.

Unfortunately, some people in your life might not respond either. They focus only on the bad. Only on your weaknesses. Isn’t it time to be done with the flies who celebrate your hurt but don’t compliment you on your strengths? Those who focus on the negative and continue to land on your old wounds?

We all have imperfections and scars in our lives which need to heal. Just don’t allow the flies to distract you from those in your life you can count on most.

What the day will bring

Success requires persistence: Persistence in the face of failure and in the boldface boringness of life. It’s the belief that hope still lives, from day to day, and that one glimmer, no matter how small or insignificant, can rotate quickly to something unexpected.

I received an email today. An acquaintance in the film industry recommended me to a casting director in a Hollywood movie. Yeah, it was a very unexpected email. My first response was: what? You want me to help you find actors? Well, no, they wanted me to send in a casting video of me reading the script. So I naturally thought, no, no, I’m the wrong person. I write. I direct. I teach theatre. I teach the art of acting to my students, but me act? No. Then I heard myself talking to my students: don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

Okay, okay. So I did it. I made a little video of me saying some lines. The specifics are hidden behind a NDA, so I can’t get into them. But, the day was a pleasant reminder of a couple of things:

  1. You never know what the day will bring.
  2. If it brings something unexpected, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

The first point is very encouraging to me as a writer. It’s easy to get discouraged trying to market one’s books or trying to have a theatre group produce one’s play. I’ve run countless promotions. I’ve sent out scripts to hundreds of places. There are always small successes along the way. The good review. The reader who tells their sphere about this new to them author. The festival that produces the play. And I celebrate each of those accomplishments. But you never know what the day will bring. What email will come from a certain fan. What opportunity will arise out of the blue. What producer might stumble upon your work and love it. What publisher might finally see the potential of a piece.

The point is to keep going. If you write, like I do. Keep writing. Keep marketing. Keep networking. Keep reaching out into your spheres. Keep doing the little things. Most importantly, keep writing (or whatever it is you do).

Today’s opportunity came from a person who saw a couple of my plays. I hadn’t seen this person in two years, but when a movie producer came along looking for a specific person, I happened to be unexpectedly in the crosshairs. It’s so weird how that works.

Whether anything comes from this is immaterial in my view. It’s a wonderful reminder to control the things you can, continue toward the goal you’ve set for yourself, and be ready to react when the timings right.

I’ll let you know if I get the part.

Writers: Screenplays and stage plays. Boy, are your rights different.

I’ve been watching with great interest the Netflix documentary The Movies That Made us. In its two seasons, it has delved into eight different blockbusters from the 80’s and 90’s, which redefined genres and succeeded even in the face of many production challenges. As a writer myself, I’ve especially been interested in how the scripts were developed and the myriad ways writers were hired, fired, cast aside or used in various ways. What I found to be especially fun to see is how scripts for the stage and scripts for the screen are used in different ways and go through completely different processes. There are certain expectations that a playwright will have that, for example, a screen writer will not. I’d like to dive into some of these differences I thought were interesting.

First, let’s go over a few of the rights a dramatist would have when their play is being performed in a professional or amateur setting. This particular list comes from https://www.dramatistsguild.com/rights in case you went to find out more. Here are a few highlights:

  • Playwrights own the copyright to their work. When it goes into production, they don’t give that up.
  • Scripts for the stage should not at all be altered or changed WITHOUT the consent of the playwright. A director does not get to change the script or language to suit his or her own needs. It must be in conjunction with the playwright. The playwright has the final say.
  • If the playwright does agree to some changes, and allows the director to add some dialogue, for example, those changes belong to the playwright’s copyright, not the director. There is very specific case law about the only circumstances in which a dramaturg or director would get co-writing credit.
  • The playwright must receive royalty from a performance if done by a professional troupe or if tickets were sold.

What about screen plays? What was fascinating for me about watching the documentary is that options for scripts are purchased by studios. At this point, they own them. They may get the original writer of the script involved in the movie-making process, or they may not. Once the studio owns them, they have complete autonomy over the creative process of turning that script into a movie. The screen writer might be fired. It happens all the time. The director might decide to hire a new writer and the script will go through many revisions, sometimes daily, until it morphs into something quite different from the original. The original screen writer has no recourse or say in this process because he or she forfeited their rights when the script or book or whatever source was purchased as an option.

In one of the episodes about Pretty Woman, the writer, in heart-wrenching fashion, said that was my baby. They were changing it beyond recognition. That’s the way movies work. When the director gets a screen play, that’s the starting point and he or she sets the vision, changes the tone, brings in past experience, and then revamps, remakes, rewrites it in their own image, so by the time it arrives on the big screen, it is as much a story of the director (if not more so) than the original writer.

But the stage is different. The stage preserves the rights and vision of the writer in a very specific way. What you see, hear, and experience is very much how the playwright intended. Of course, the director of a play will certainly make their mark and set the vision, but the language and story is very much that of the writer.

If you wrote something that a movie studio purchased as an option, would it sadden you to see it go through a transformation? It would for me. But you know what, I’d still be willing to do it in order to see one of my stories come alive on screen.

Any takers?

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, but …

There have been many compelling comparisons of Afghanistan with Vietnam over these past couple heart-wrenching days as the world has watched the capitulation of the Afghani government to the Taliban.

First, let’s deal with the differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The origin of the conflicts and the histories and cultures of the countries offer many significant differences which make the conflicts, and even this precipitous ending difficult to compare. One was fought on the premise of stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The other to root out the terrorist Al-Qaeda training camps which were used to perpetrate 9-11. The latter’s mission then morphed into keeping the Taliban at bay while helping the fledgling government of Afghanistan to build it’s institutions: government, military, education, societal reforms, etc… No one anticipated the US staying in the country for twenty years, and the fact that it was necessary says a lot about the long-term problems of the country and very much calls into question whether outside intervention would ever have actually succeeded.

I don’t want to dismiss what was achieved though. Because these changes, even if now coming to an end, made a difference in many people’s lives. Google Afghani women’s orchestra if you want to see a little slice of joy which these ladies could never have experienced without American intervention. Who’s to say if the costs outweighed the benefits? I suppose it would depend on who you ask.

But as the Taliban have taken over Kabul, the comparisons of Vietnam have become vivid. The dramatic airplane lifts. The shot of the helicopter taking off from the embassy reminiscent of that dramatic lift-off from the Saigon embassy in April 1975. No matter how vivid these images are, I believe the biggest comparison between the two is related to the American-trained military that each time period left behind.

The Nixon administration in 1973 negotiated a peace deal with the communists from North Vietnam which would enable the Americans to pull out “with dignity” and allow the war between the two sides to cease. We know now that the north never intended to keep their word on this deal. They would simply wait out the Americans. In some ways, I suppose the Americans knew this, but did it matter? No. Because, they left behind over a million well-trained South Vietnamese troops and all the American equipment and fire power to defend the south if the north went back on the agreement. This was a massive army. Surely it would be able to handle the north.

Fast forward to a July 2021 press conference with President Joe Biden when he was asked about the likelihood that the Taliban would be able to take over the country with the Americans pulling out. He was emphatic in his answers. In what may become one of the most eye-blackening presidential press conference in history, he confirmed that the Afghani army has 300,000 well-trained soldiers, better equipped than most countries in the world. (Note: most other estimates say the 300,000 figure is incorrect stating that the Afghani troops numbered closer to 170,000) The Taliban had only 75,000. He assured everyone that the Taliban would not be able to re-take the country.

Unfortunately, Biden’s prediction failed miserably. What went wrong? And I think here is where the real comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam comes to a head. In the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese army started marching southward. Remember, the south had a million well-trained troops. What happened? The north just walked right over them. The south’s troops had no will to fight. They fled. They left their positions. In a manner of a very short time, all that equipment and all those men just evaporated and the North Vietnamese commander was sitting in the presidential palace in Saigon, which would soon after that be renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Likewise, where were those 300,000 Afghani troops? I can only assume that they had no will to fight. The motives behind the Taliban were resolute. Those behind the Afghani army were … what … unclear? But clearly, the will to win, the will to survive, the will to defend the ideals that the US was trying to establish was not important.

Massive armies. Well-trained. Best equipped armies in the world. Fell apart just like that.

Whatever lessons can be learned or blame can be offered must take a backseat to the human elements and suffering now being played out. Its people need help. I hope the world is up to the challenge.

Travel in Covid

I guess I’m one of the few people in the world who travelled quite a bit during Covid. Of course, all of my planned travel to Turkey and Greece, during the early hours of Covid in 2020 was cancelled, but that didn’t stop me. Surprisingly. In June of 2020, I took (an expensive) state department repatriation flight from Jeddah to Washington DC so I could spend the summer with family. That two month ordeal turned into a three and a half month ordeal as I wasn’t able to fly back until October 2020.

Restrictions had let up by December, so I flew back to the US for Christmas, only to have my time extended until mid-January due to further flight restrictions. Then in June 2021, I flew back to the US again, and just this week, arrived back in Jeddah.

Travel during Covid has been strange, for sure. The 2020 travel was actually kind of enjoyable for weird reasons. While no one enjoys wearing a mask on a 12 hour flight, or no one enjoys paying an arm and a leg for a negative Covid test just so you can fly, EVERYONE enjoys empty flights and empty airports. It was amazing. Rather than trying to find a seat in the old Jeddah airport and having to literally climb over people sleeping on the floor, waiting for their flight, we had the entire terminal to ourselves! We arrived in the US and there were no lines. Anywhere. There were no people. Anywhere. It was like, where am I? It had the feeling of travel, I suspect, from the 1950s. When one could casually stroll through the airport and have a pleasant time without the over-stressed security and the overbearing hoards of people.

I was on many flights where I had entire rows to myself. Sometimes nearly entire sections. My bags rolled off onto the carrousel within minutes. I was out the door and into my rental (no lines there either) within a few more minutes. It was wonderful!

I knew it couldn’t last. Nor do I want it to. Well, maybe only for selfish reasons, but we all want the economy to roar back and we want normality again. Right?

This last trip back to Jeddah made things start to feel normal. Sure, I still had the inconvenience of spending two nights in a hotel so I could get my Covid test, I still had to wear a mask at the airport and on the plane, but the lines were back. My first flight to Jordan was packed. No empty seats. Social distancing? Ha! There were lines at the restaurants in Amman airport. My flight to Saudi was packed. I thought, great, we are back to normal. How long will I have to wait on my bags?

As I cruised through immigration and approached the baggage carrousel, there they were. The universe was giving me a peace offering. It was reminding me that all is not lost. All is not terrible. Getting back to full-force travel will be okay: my bags were amongst the first off. I picked them up and walked out of the airport within one minute.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope the rest of 2021 and 2022 will bring us back to the dreaded travel days before Covid. It’s what the world needs.

The Root of Book Marketing

I was pulling some rather thick and determined ground cover off a bank the other day. Most of it came out without too much effort. A strong pull here, a few cuts with the lopper there, and I was able to untangle and tug the bank clean. Except for one particularly difficult root. No problem, I thought. I have all the tools I need. I got this! Here was my methodology:

A tug. It’s what worked for the others. This one? Barely budged it.

Snip. I cut around all the small root strands. Tug again. Nothing.

Shovel. I dug all around it and tried prying up from each angle. No luck.

Axe. I figured if I can get the axe head down around the base of the root, I could just chop it off. I swung the axe repeatedly and it seemed to bounce off it like it was made of rubber.

Pick. I used the long-handled pick to slice through the main root remaining. After repeated swings, I was sure it would come out.

Tug. Forty minutes later and it barely felt like I had done anything at all.

But I persisted. I would not allow this to defeat me.

Shovel. Snip. Dig. Snip. Tug. Pry. Swing. And finally, the beast gave up its soul and the gnarly stubborn thing was defeated. After much sweat. After many tools. After a variety of methods. After a prolonged persistence.

And after I had accomplished it, there was one thing going through my mind. Book marketing. Yeah, the root of all evil in my book.

Honestly, marketing is, for me, the most mundane, undesirable part of being a writer. Many times I’ve said to myself: why even bother. Just keep writing. This isn’t working. That isn’t working. Just give up.

But the root reminded me that life, like root extracting, like book marketing isn’t about one method. It’s about many methods, many tools, and many attempts over a sustained period of time.

If I gave up at AXE, that root would have won. If I only tried the shovel, I would have lost the battle. It was the combination of tools and attempts over time which did the trick.

What do you need to do in order to unlock your book marketing success? What have you tried? Keep doing what works. Keep trying new methods. Keep looking for new tools. And keep tugging, no matter what. That’s ultimately the key. The root never would have come out if I had thrown in the towel. You also won’t solve book marketing by allowing the root to remain in the ground. It’s a constant fight, but it will be worth it. One day.

I’ve Written a New Show: Finally. “Within Reach”

A colleague in the theatre industry reached out a few months ago about collaborating on a new theatre project. After some discussing back and forth, it was decided that I would write the entire show. It would consist of 10 short plays similarly themed. Today, I finished writing it. My first new full-length theatre show in two and a half years. It’s titled: Within Reach.

Before I outline what the show’s about, I’d like to look back at the other shows of similar format that I’ve written over the years. I was put onto short-form drama about ten years ago, formed a teen drama troupe, and proceeded to write and produce a number of shows over the years. I love this type of show: short plays, light sets, various genres, similar themes, and one cohesive unit. They are super fun and audiences love them. Here’s a list of my previous shows in this format:

2011 The Road Less Traveled (Penang Performing Arts Centre)

2012 Drive All Night (Penang Performing Arts Centre)

2013 Captured in Time & Space (Penang Performing Arts Centre)

2014 For All Generations (Penang Performing Arts Centre; restaged in Jeddah in 2018)

2015 Tales of Wonder (Christmas show) (Penang Performing Arts Centre)

2016 Tales of Wonder II (Penang Performing Arts Centre)

2017 Tales of Christmas (Penang Performing Arts Centre – only one not produced by myself)

2018 Stories, Vol 1 & Stories Vol 2 (Jeddah – Mix of new and older scripts)

2019 Crazy Love (Scheduled to be produced in April 2020 until pandemic cancelled it)

So that brings us to my brand new show: WITHIN REACH.

Here’s a short description about the show: WITHIN REACH is a poignant and challenging look at the past and present. It ponders the possibilities of life, the obstacles that hold us down, the inspiration that moves us forward, and the power of hope and reconciliation that come from unexpected places. WITHIN REACH is a full-length, theatrical production consisting of ten similarly themed short plays meant to empower youth and women, while encouraging everyone to engage in the human stories around them.

I’m super excited about these 10 plays. I had so much fun writing them. They were challenging and meaningful to put together. They include two historical pieces which I love. Several pieces about teen issues and four pieces specifically written with strong female roles. Here’s a quick overview of the individual pieces are about:

Booker T. Sweeps the Floor: A historical piece based on an episode from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. Booker learns a tough lesson about hard work. But when the ex-slave dreams of going to school, he has a strange entrance exam that he was prepared for: sweeping the floor.

The One True Sport: A young teen boy is petrified when he has to take his shirt off and play a basketball game in front of a girl he likes.

Dark Social: Two teens decide to create a false, malicious video about a girl from school they are upset with. Dark Web helps make it viral, causing untold misery to all involved.

Awake & Unchanged: At the funeral of her unfaithful husband, a woman comes to grip with her life choices as her bitter daughter questions why her mother never left him. 

Four Chairs: A woman examines her life choices and tries to better understand why she made them.

Auditions: Three women show up to audition for a role in a play, only to discover that they are actually auditioning for the roles they currently play in their lives.

Life’s Choreography: Two women dancers are working with a difficult choreographer, who keeps riding one of the women particularly hard.

The Other Side of the Wall: A young couple celebrate the night when they get engaged as their neighbor is going through an emotional breakup. Each one doesn’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall.

Write Therapy: A creative writing teacher volunteers to mentor youth in a juvenile criminal center. But she targets one intelligent yet jaded detainee for a surprising reason.

America’s Game: Based on the true story of Octavius Catto. In 1871 Philadelphia, teacher and black activist Octavius Catto is meeting with his students when he hears of tension at the local polling place. As he goes to investigate, he is assassinated by merciless Frank Kelly. Both Kelly and Catto are whisked into another dimension to Cosmic Court where Catto chooses a strange form of justice: baseball.

Where and when will WITHIN REACH hit the stage? Well, that’s yet to be determined. Stay tuned.

If anyone is interested in learning more about any of these shows, please feel free to reach out to me.

It’s a good day when a new show has been written. It will only get better once the lights turn on.

There are no bad ideas.

You might be tempted to think that some ideas are just bad. Not true. Ideas may have just been brought to life prematurely. Before I explain, here are two rules I follow as a writer:

  1. Keep all ideas. Keep them on file. Keep them on speed dial. Often new ideas will arise and you’ll get excited about them. But then when they hit the paper, they stare blankly at you and you don’t know what to do with them. I have a lot of old word documents with play titles with nothing but blank pages. But keep them!
  2. Connect new ideas with old ideas. New ideas emerge.

I was listening to the radio this morning in the car and a song came on. The phrase in the chorus struck me, and as I usually do, I fixated on that phrase and wondered what it would look like if I wrote a play or something based on that idea. I thought it worth exploring.

When I got home, I flipped on the laptop to get down a few thoughts when the car phrase reminded me of something I had started writing many years ago. As I started wading back through old files to find it, I came across another abandoned idea which suddenly intrigued me. I started re-chasing that one and before I knew it, I was working on two old pieces which will become two new pieces for a show I’m writing.

It’s fun when ideas compound on each other. So another axiom I live my writing life by: there are no bad ideas. There are ideas which haven’t come of age. There are ideas which haven’t yet developed. There are ideas which lack the crucial link which will take them in their eventual direction.

But there are no bad ideas. Keep them moving in your mind. One day they will all make sense. Or at least some of them will. I may not outlive the usefulness of some of my ideas.