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.

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 Irony of Writing Time

I woke up this morning to a text message from Saudia Airlines, telling me my flight itinerary to Greece in May had been cancelled. I had planned a self-derived writing retreat, where I was going to split my time between the island of Poros and Athens for nine, sublime, uninterrupted writing days.

But like the rest of the world, well, yes; we know what’s going on. Travels, jobs, nerves have all been frayed by the little novel virus, which decided to wreck havoc on many untold and told plans. You know the Jewish proverb: Man plans, God laughs.

However, there is a bit of irony about this situation for me as a writer. It was not long ago – no more than two months – that I was lamenting to whoever would listen that I did not have any time to write. I had for months been busy with teaching and producing shows – all of which I love – but I was feeling it deep down in my being that if I did not get extended writing time in the near future, I would experience some severe life fatigue. Yes, writing is my release. Thus, I booked my trip to Athens. I’d at least have nine days.

Little did I know how the world, let alone my little writing plans would be thwarted and changed. Ironically, my 9 writing days in Athens has been multiplied. I did not see this coming. Ever since my country of residence (Saudi Arabia) clamped down to fight the virus, time has been one thing I have had. All flights have been cancelled. All school is virtual. Evening time is under a curfew starting at 7. Low and behold, my writing time has a bank ledger brimming in the black. I have so much time, I am starting projects I didn’t know I’d ever get to!

In the past two weeks, I’ve edited and compiled three play volumes I’ve been wanting to produce for years. My first play volume was published in 2016. It’s been four years, and now, all of the sudden, I have three new volumes which will release all at once. More on those later.

Now I’m staring down 9 days of spring break (I was supposed to be in Turkey) where I can begin a brand new writing project. And I still have those 9 days in May where I will be able to write from here.

My how things have changed. The tragic circumstances of the coronavirus is nothing to be thankful for, but one never knows when time, the most valuable commodity we have in this life, will give itself back to you. Please make the most of it. I know I plan to do so.

The Men’s Room Podcast & a Student of Mine

Do you want to hear about the breath-taking changes happening in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of a 19-year-old Saudi-American student?  Well, here’s your chance. In The Men’s Room Podcast below, the host delves deep into the changes with one of my very own drama students — Sami Fathi. He’s an articulate communicator and talented young actor. I hope you enjoy his take on Saudi’s generation Z.

The Rise of Generation Z in Saudi Arabia

Don’t Gravitate Towards Sports Just Because Everyone Does

I’ve seen it many times over my teaching career. Talented art-leaning students choosing sports because everyone does.

And before you peg me as a non-sports person who doesn’t know … blah, blah.

I understand. Growing up, baseball was my life. Quite literally. When I wasn’t playing on a team, I was throwing the ball against our porch wall or creating elaborate fake leagues with statistics and MVPs and trades and expansion teams. I was obsessed. And in those dark winter months, I started listening to Pitt Panthers basketball, created fake hockey scores, and played a lot of tackle football in our backyard. I was a sports guy, completely. And I wasn’t so bad at it. I had a fastball in the mid-80s and was even told I had a shot at getting drafted if I worked hard. Full disclosure, I didn’t.

And I think I know why. I was an arts person caught up in a sports world. The thing is: I didn’t know I was an arts person. How is a person to know? Okay, I liked to write poetry. Perhaps that should have been a clue. I liked to attend plays even though I was much too shy and lacking in confidence to think I should ever have auditioned for them.

I still remember watching my sister perform beautifully in the play Done to Death. I admired her so much. She painted too. She was an arts person, who sadly died her senior year in high school when I was ten. I still think about her all the time. I miss her.

I created things all the time – whether my own radio station on cassette tape or a play or a song lyric. But I loved baseball, and so I pursued it.

Nothing wrong with pursuing sports. I get it.

But I have seen too much creative talent being wasted in a mediocre basketball game. I’ve had kids who have terrific vocals, strong creative skills, wonderful acting abilities who end up playing third strong on a team when they could have been starring in the spotlight—kids who could really go somewhere in the arts—and if not, at least benefit tremendously from the communication skills and creative people-skills so in demand in today’s world.

I’ve told kids repeatedly, don’t go your entire high school career without trying out for a play. Step out of your comfort zone. I’ve seen talented and creative folks with great potential quit drama in the middle of a production because of a sport or they have too much to study.

Please, parents, you know if your kids are creative. Encourage them. “Hey, have you thought about dropping basketball for a year in order to take part in the musical? You have those abilities.”

They don’t always listen to me, but I almost can guarantee if they do, they will never regret it.

Creatitivity breeds confidence and more creativity. It will change the way you think, what you do, what you feel is important, and it will open doors you never thought possible.

So please, don’t gravitate towards sports just because everyone else does. Kids need to be encouraged  to do something creative, something co-curricular, outside of the realm of a classroom. I’m going to keep encouraging kids to do what I never did.

I realized late in life how important the arts are to me. I’m grateful I found this hidden calling of mine. I’m hoping there are many young people who will discover this side of them much earlier than I did.

Remember: create, not consume.

… and What’s on Tap for 2020?

A new year for a writer is filled with hopes and ambitions. Most of them swirl around the hope that any particular writer (me, in my case) will have enough time to accomplish all that is whipping around in their brain.

If 2020 is an ideal year for writing, here’s what I hope to accomplish.

NOVELS

  • I plan to release my 9th novel–MOSES THE SINGER–by mid-year. It’s now in the final editing stage.
  • Novel 10 – an alternative history novel which I have been toying with for the past two years. I’ve even written the first chapter, but it has some problems. I hope to overcome those and get the darn thing down.
  • The great baseball novel. I have an idea which I too have been fiddling around with. I wrote a short story called THE HUNDRED PITCH AT BAT which I intend to be a jumping off point for an entire baseball book of fiction. Let’s do it!

PLAYS

  • I want to write a new complete show to be produced in the following school year. I’ve started with some preliminary writing. It will be a play with different stories but are woven together as an ensemble show. I have some interesting ideas. I want to get this done in the spring.
  • Christmas Compilation: I have been trying to compile and publish my second volume of plays. This one called: Tales of Wonder: The Plays of Christmas.  It’s a compilation of the three Christmas shows I wrote and produced in Penang. I need to get this done by the summer.
  • Dear High School – I plan on compiling and publishing this play which is a full-show of different short plays themed around high school. All of them have been produced to great success, and I think this would be a fun one for many schools to produce.
  • Lastly, I have a play I’ve written over the last five years about the confluence of different ideologies between evangelical Christianity and the LGBT movement in relation to the gay marriage movement and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Maybe I’ll finally let this one out of my clutches. It’s my most raw play I’ve ever written. But perhaps it’s time.

Other stuff:

Writing residency. I’m hoping to create my own residency and head back to Penang for a week to write and eat and write and enjoy my old stomping grounds. I think that could be a productive time.

Maybe a trip to Turkey? Ancient Ephesus sounds nice.

And finally, I’ll go where my brain takes me. There are always unexpected writing twists and turns depending on what is percolating up there. We shall see.

Here’s to a productive 2020!authorsasse

What is Wrong With Us?

I’m worried about us. Humans, that is. And it has everything to do with cell phones.

I had my final show tonight. Seussical. A culmination of 3.5 months of hard work. It was a great show. I’m so proud of my actors and tech crew who pulled it off. But what I saw tonight sickened me. And it made me worry about us. Us humans.

I was sitting in the audience. That’s what I do as a director. When the show comes around, I always consider my work to be finished. So I enjoy the show from the house and see what my many months of work has produced.

I’m proud of this show. We had a lot of things go wrong, but we weathered the storm and put on a great show for the audience. But here’s where my worries enter.

Right in front of me was the uncle of one of the performers. And he couldn’t pay attention. At all. I mean at all. If he went a minute without checking his phone I’d be surprised. He came to the show, paid money for a ticket, was there to watch his nephew, and yet couldn’t pull himself away from his phone long enough to even pay attention to the show going on in front of him.

I’m worried. Very worried about us. Us humans.

He was looking at his Facebook feed. I mean studying his Facebook feed. The same feed he monitors all day long. And he couldn’t pull himself away from it for even a few minutes to watch a great production with his NEPHEW being one of the leads. No. That was too much. His Facebook feed was so compelling that he couldn’t look away.

What does that mean for us? It’s not good. These screens have become our dictators. Our gods. Our everything. And he (and it’s not only he, it’s many people) couldn’t bother to pay attention to what his nephew was doing on stage. (rather brilliantly, might I add) He couldn’t bother with actual life. He needed the virtual. He couldn’t pull away. He needed the feel of the screen — the thrill of the scroll. He turned his back on his own kin for a cheap thrill of a tiny screen.

I am sickened. For all of us. What will we become?

What is wrong with us?

Want to Experience Bad Writing? Watch Madame Secretary, Season 5, episodes 17-19

I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do, I want to enjoy myself – not be preached at. Earlier this year, I started watching Madame Secretary. Honestly, the first season had some issues, especially early on, but I thought the writing got stronger and more creative as the show progressed into the later seasons. Not long ago, I said to myself that I am really enjoying this show, season 5, for some fun story lines and intriguing drama. And then the writers dared to get on their high horse and started moralizing. It became nauseating. I almost stopped watching.

Moralizing kills creativity. And creativity, once slain, is a beast to resurrect.

Now, I’m not opposed to writing having a message or at least an opinion. I think writing is generally better when there is purpose behind it.

But, and this is a huge but, when writing becomes didactic, and doesn’t allow for open-ended inquiry and thought, it’s a HUGE bore. And that’s what happened with Madame Secretary.

The writing got bogged down in an endless and nauseating cycle of global warming, climate migration, and brow-beating moralizing that became predictable and a flat-out snooze-fest. This is not what I want for entertainment. If I want people spouting their opinions at me, I’ll watch cable news.

But if you’re writing for a network drama, GET CREATIVE!

When writing doesn’t allow people to think for themselves, it’s lazy.

When writing doesn’t facilitate dialogue from different points of views, it’s boring.

When creative writing is no different than watching cable news, please find a new job as a copy editor or web blogger. Get out of the entertainment business.

It took four episodes for Madame Secretary to begin to find its footing again. How did it do that? By getting back to issues that centered around the characters and not on a series of real-world crisis.

Hey writers, if you wanted to convince people to think certain ways about important topics, you did the exact opposite. You almost lost some viewers.

Please do better.

Sincerely,

Someone who thinks he can.