Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

A Writer on Pause No More

I’m a writer.

But it’s not what buys the bread and puts kids through college. For that, I am also a teacher.

But the best part of being a teacher and writer is, of course, summer. Summer is when I can hit the resume button and become a full-time writer again. I am at that blissful part of my year as I currently write this. Writing happiness has returned once again.

I’ve had the most wonderful writing routine the past three days, and it looks sustainable for the next month or so. I carve out of my day about three hours to sit alone with my laptop, immersed in my thoughts, and punch out as much coherent dialogue and description that I can during that time frame. Then I pack it up, get back to family time, cook some dinner, and ponder where my next writing episode the following day will take me.

Three hours is typically the maximum amount of time that I can concentrate on writing. Sometimes only two depending on how the chapter is coming together. By the time I reach the two or three hour mark, I’m ready for a break. I need to allow what I have written to sink in my brain and make sure it is exactly where I want to take the story. I don’t like to get too far ahead of myself. Three steps forward. The next day, I’ll backtrack and re-read what I wrote. Edit and revise. Check and double-check, and then plow on to the next chapter or segment. When I get to do this this everyday for two or three hours, I can make a lot of headway, and within a month, I can have a solid outline for a complete novel.

I’m currently working on book 2 of my first trilogy. I’m already over the 42,000 word mark while cruising into the latter half of the book. I’m having a blast with this story and can’t wait to see where it will take me.

A summer where the pause button is no more. The pedal is to the metal. Full speed ahead. It’s exciting. Stay tuned.

How about you? How do you carve out time for writing?

America in Decline? I Don’t See It.

I’ve been blessed with two months of blissful rest this summer. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with many family members I don’t have the opportunity to visit often. I’ve had the chance to eat some (too much, actually) some culinary delights which I didn’t get often in Asia. And I’ve had ample chances already, with still six weeks ahead of me, to enjoy the wonderful outdoors of an American northeastern summer. The weather has been cooler and wetter than usual, and that has led to week after week of wonderful brisk evening air, vivid green rolling hillsides, and enough fresh produce to make anyone smile. I grew up in America, yet I’m always amazed at what a unique and amazing place it really is. The talk of American decline doesn’t include the green countryside. I swear, there couldn’t be any more trees anywhere in the world than the country realms of Pennsylvania and New York. Endless, for hundreds of miles. Tremendous. No decline there.

The real people in America aren’t caught up in the nasty politics of the day. The banker I met today who helped my son open his first bank account didn’t care a lick about political persuasions or across the aisle name calling. The woman who duplicated two keys for me in her small locksmith shop didn’t bicker about Washington gridlock. We chatted, like human beings, acknowledging the strange indentations on my key. We thanked each other and parted. No decline there.

Streets are lined with businesses and opportunities that pop up over night. I passed a country farm house way in the New York farmlands where one person plopped a food trailer in front of his house, as isolated from humanity as it was, and plastered it with every fast food advertisement you could think of. You could get grilled sandwiches, burgers, dogs, drinks, ice cream, and many other kinds of typical American fare. He didn’t care about the outside world. He sought the passerbyers. It looks like he succeeded.

In my parents country neighborhood, gas company XTO has already drilled 5000 feet into the earth, creating horizontal drills at that depth for miles as they begin the many years process of fracturing the compressed shale and pump out the natural gas which is going to power America into the future. The company is buying up rights, paying out royalties, and is creating a buzz in the neighborhood that hasn’t been there since Western PA’s big oil push way back in the 1870-1890s. This tiny village hasn’t changed in 50 years, yet no signs of decline here.

Industries come and go. Stores close while others open. Kids grow up. Schools expand and then contract. Churches lose influence and shutter their doors, while new congregations rent mall space or other creative setting to nurture their fledgling congregation. Families enlarge. People move away. Some people find success while other soldier on through hard times. Students struggle between work and school. Some lose hope while others fight on to fulfill their dreams. Many will reach it. Others will settle into something rather unexpected and learn to like it.

Weekends will come and go. Elderly couples will kayak on the lake. Lines of cars will snap up the soft serve. Millions will go to ballgames, from Little League to wacky minor league fields to the majors. They’ll eat hotdogs, yell at the umpires, and chew the fat with their neighbors. Lawns will be mowed, home repairs started, and families will gather in reunions.

All of this happens without the media, without Congress, without the President, without any regard to any Supreme Court ruling, or without any concern about terrorism or foreign battle fields.  This all happens without racist overtones, identity politics, or rioting and looting outside the G20 meetings.

There may be real problems which need to be solved as this country moves into the future, but America is not in decline. It’s as vibrant, resilient, cocky yet tentative as always. It lives and dies with the cycle of life inhabited by its people during their daily routines. I’ve been watching these routines, and they are as hopeful as ever. The American dream is not dead because I’ve seen it alive again and again during these past two weeks. It’s as real as its always been, no thanks to any political parties in Washington.

 

 

 

 

Writing Progress isn’t Always Visible

A month ago, I boasted that the first novel in my first trilogy was complete and the second novel is half-written.

Today, I can boast that the first novel in my first trilogy is almost complete and the second novel is half-written.

Wait. What? Am I moving backwards?

It may feel like that. Writing has a way of moving at a glacial pace. But that is okay, even preferable. Sometimes you need to take a step backwards if you want to jump two steps ahead.

I started writing this first novel back in December 2015. Trust me, I’ve never dilly-dallied so much. The issue arose when I decided that the story needed to continue, so I put the brakes on my novel in hopes of mapping out where I wanted the story to go.

I assured myself that the first novel was still complete. Just in waiting.

I was wrong. So I revised it once again.

Then I pushed on to novel two and got about half way through it when I realized that novel one still wasn’t sitting right in the pit of my writing stomach. I sighed deeply and decided to look at it once more. I am so glad I did.

Besides fighting back some discrepancies which arose from writing book 2, I found a host of other mistakes and poorly worded phrases which I swear were NOT there the last time I edited it. Those blasted writing gremlins. Sabotage. Clearly. I had actually sent this previous version to my editor whom I am glad hadn’t started reading it yet. Because, no! Stop! It wasn’t ready. Just kidding.

It can feel like I’m getting nowhere because book 2 is still only half way complete. That was last month’s news as well.

But I look at it like this. I am strengthening the foundation and core of this entire story. By revising one more time, I am pushing the quality to a new height which will benefit all three of the books of the trilogy.

Writing progress comes in many forms. It’s not only when you write a new chapter. It’s also when you put the building blocks in place to create better chapters in the future.

I had an artificial timeline of when I wanted to release this first book, but all that must take a back seat to quality. Must. Timelines and expectations have to wait.

I want to do this right, so let the unseen writing hand get to work.

 

 

 

 

Visuals are Overrated

Visuals are Overrated

I grew up listening to baseball on the radio. I first discovered it as a nine year old in 1976 when I stumbled upon KDKA carrying the rhythmic, ritualistic broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When I started playing baseball in the spring of 1977, I became completely hooked on the calls of Milo Hamilton and the young Lanny Frattare. Radio is, admittedly, my third choice for following a baseball game. Attending the game is first, no doubt, followed by watching it on TV. Radio brings up the rear.

And yet, as I am currently sitting in the evening breeze of the western NY countryside, sitting by a mellow fire, listening the delightful verbal jaunts of Greg Brown and Bob Walk while I write this blog post, I cannot imagine that I would rather be watching it on TV or even in person.

Tonight I don’t have a choice. Radio is my only option, and boy am I glad.

The visual compels us. The imagination takes us away.

Baseball already has a slow, deliberate pace—perfect for gabbing, laughing, eating, and drinking. Baseball allows one to breathe, using boredom as an art form to build tension and unsurpassed drama when the game is on the line. Baseball eschews time, allows fate to be fulfilled no matter how preposterous.  Radio heightens all of this.

Baseball on radio allows you to paint your own picture while working on something else. Baseball on radio is a story, many stories, highlighted by announcers who can fill in the dead air with anecdotes, silliness, and in-depth analysis. It’s a series of crescendos—nine of them actually. Voices are magnified, great plays become improbable plays in your mind, homeruns are always Ruthian, and hard hit balls have a beautiful crack of the bat—a literal crack, that historically relevant sound of wound wool and leather on ash. Each pitch is measured, each move accounted for, each run emphasized by the natural excitement of the announcer.

I love baseball on the radio. I miss it.

Why don’t I always listen?

Because, when the visuals are available, I will always choose them. Always.

I just wish they weren’t available so often.

So thank you, stupid MLB blackout rules.

A Railroad Trail

Three hundred yards behind the house where I grew up was a railroad track. Now its a beautiful bike trail.

P_20170624_100004

 

The railroad tracks provided an important hub of activity of my childhood. It was a small, rather insignificant line which traveled from Butler PA to Freeport and beyond, but as a young boy, it was as if Commodore Vanderbilt himself had named this line the most important one in the world. The rambunctious young country kids would hang out at the tracks, putting our ear on the steel rails as we tried to listen for the vibration from an oncoming locomotive. I always felt like a Cheerokee warrior when I did that, trying to hear the rumbling of the cowboy posse coming my way. When it did arrive, we would stand on the side banks signaling for the engine to blow its whistle and throwing stones at the freight cars. The best part, however, was when the caboose arrived, we would yell and scream and, invariably, an engineer would poke his head out of the back and throw us candy. Yeah, it was the greatest thing in the world. And it kept getting better.

One summer we heard that Conrail had purchased our tracks. I had no idea what that meant only that Conrail was, at the time, the largest railroad company in the world. That proved the importance of my little track. The largest company in the world ran freight behind my house. I spent hours there. Picking berries along the route. Putting pennies on the track to be amazed at how the train flattened them into smooth oval metal charms. I would use the rails as balancing beams and see how far I could walk on them without touching down. There were certain parts of the tracks which entered the “cliff” sections. We always joshed with each other about how not to get caught in these sections when the train approached or we would have to cling on the rocks hoping the train wouldn’t ever suck us under its weight. It was a real fear of mine. Of course, nothing so dramatic ever happened, but the perceived danger heightened the wonderfulness of it all. Here’s one of those “cliffs”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could have figured something out.

P_20170624_100958.jpg

After I went off to college, the line eventually shut down. Years later the tracks were removed and the community was in an uproar as to what would happen to the railroad land. Of course land owners who buttressed up against the tracks wanted it to revert to them. But the community leaders had different plans and they went about creating a bicycling trail. There were lawsuits and many obstacles along the way, but what they have created is a beautiful long bike trail through the charming and beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Someone got this one right. Now this narrow strip of land is creating new memories for families and kids which will last for another generation.

There’s nothing quite as awesome as a railroad. But a bike trail isn’t a far off second.

P_20170624_095532

The trees in the background hide the elevated railroad tracks/trail which were built to cut the valley in two.

P_20170624_103212

A view from the trail. That’s my childhood house nestled between the branches.

 

 

 

 

Sally, Where are you?

I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old mementos, and I came across a letter from a former student of mine. Here name was Sally. That’s not her real name. She’s Chinese from Dalian where I spent the summer of 1993. I remember her well. She taught me to play Chinese chess, which I have since forgotten. She had a bubbly personality and was a pleasure to chat with. When I left China, we exchanged a few letters and as time would have it, the summer of 1993 faded from our memories. The letters stopped as our lives continued in new directions. But I still remember Sally. Here’s the short letter she wrote to me that I found today:

“Mark, how are you? I’m eagerly to hear from you. I’m too busy to write to you. I have a lot word to talk with you, about my new work. So I write another letter to you. Post a book you’d like to read. ‘Selected Stories of Lu Hsun” and a very traditional Chinese disc. I hope you like it. Ok. God with you!”

Sally  93.02.09

Thank you, Sally. I wish I remembered your Chinese name and knew how to find you, but I don’t. I wonder where you are now. I wonder where your English language skills have taken you. You must be forty years old now with a family. Do you encourage your kids to learn English? Did you stay in Dalian? Have you had a happy life?

People come and go in one’s life. Sally is one who has gone. But I still remember her and I wish that the years have treated her well and that the brief moment I was her teacher in the summer of 1993 played a small role in her being able to accomplish her dreams.

God with you, Sally.