Detours

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Sometimes life takes you into unexpected directions. And just as often, so does writing.

I originally started writing my war novel with the idea that the protagonist’s primary relationship would be with the stricken women with which he’s tasked to care for. (He’s a doctor in a war zone that eventually becomes occupied territory.) But after about a hundred pages in — god, what took so long? — I realized that the relationship that intrigued me the most was the one that was developing and expanding between him and the enemy. Specifically, the man from the enemy camp who is charged with taking care of him.

I’m in Day 11 of National Novel Writing Month, and rather than starting over with a new novel in keeping with NaNoWriMo tradition, I’ve opted to continue the same novel with an eye towards finally completing the first draft by the time I crawl across the finish line on November 30th. I’ve taken more detours in the draft as it’s grown and expanded over the last few years, and sometimes the detours have led me to other, new characters with whom my protagonist has struck up new friendships, but I’ve always found myself drawn back to that same thread that ties the protagonist and his primary opponent and captor to each other. The vision I originally had for the story hasn’t just evolved but has taken off into an entirely different trajectory. The biggest struggle I have now is to ensure that the women doesn’t become just a sideshow because that was the entire reason I was compelled to write the story in the first place. If anything, that’s the most compelling thing that draws the two men together.

My job now is to make sure the detour doesn’t take me too far off the path I’ve set for myself and get me lost. Being lost in a story can be a good thing, but losing the story itself would be a tragedy.

Goodbye, Bella

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Heartbreaking.

Nick Bradbury

Over the years I’ve shared my life with seven dogs and I’ve loved them all, but none have meant more to me than Bella. Today I had to let her go, and I’m remembering what an impact she has had on me.

She possessed a fiercely independent spirit that I connected with in a way I never have with any other creature, and that connection was so deep that it forced me to confront how we treat animals as mere product. I gave up eating meat in part because of the bond we have shared.

She was unique, she was beautiful, and she was loved. It hurts so much to let her go, but I’m so glad we shared each other’s lives. I like to think we’re both better off for it.

bella-collage

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Rave Run: Rain

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“Rave runs” seem to be a popular blog post topic, so I figured I’d add some of my own. This one qualified not because of location (it’s the same neighborhood I get 90% of my runs in) but because of circumstances: it was the first time I’d ever run through a major storm, complete with wind, lots of lightning and thunder. At one point a thunderclap boomed so close behind me I instinctively ducked, thinking it must’ve been just yards away. In hindsight it was probably not the smartest decision to run through a storm, but I’m still happy to mark it off as a Rave Run.

The only downside? Coming home to a house with no power. No power = no hot coffee, no way to make my favorite post-run meal (steel cut oats with soy milk), no Sunday morning “Golden Girls” on TV. At least I could still have a hot shower, albeit using flashlights.

A girl, her dog, and her shoes

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When I asked the saleswoman at the running shop if I could use my old shoes as a backup pair now that I had a new one (I’d brought the old ones in to show them the wear marks, which would give clues to my running gait and foot fall), she had the same look on her face as the mechanic had when I asked him if I could drive my car a few more days before leaving it with him overnight. Note that my tires were basically bald. “I can’t, in good conscience, allow you to leave my shop with those tires,” he declared. The running shop woman basically said much the same about my shoes.

I firmly believe that with the right footwear, one can rule the world. ~ Bette Midler.

Vintage friendship

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A friend and I were talking about another friend of mine (whom she doesn’t know and hasn’t met), and she mentioned how much she loved this friend’s name.

“Such a timeless name.”

Her comment made me smile. A big, huge, happy smile. What an apt description, because she perfectly described not just my friend’s name (whom I’ll call N.) but our friendship as a whole.

Have you ever had a friend whom you don’t see very often — in fact, entire years may pass before you’re even in the same city — but when you do, you just know that each encounter will be memorable? The kind of friendship that has such an outsize influence in your life that even if your meetings are rare, their footprints are all over the landscape of your past and future?

That was, and is, N.

I met N. when we were both in college, way back in either the fall of 1992 or the spring semester of 1993. In fact, I remember hearing him before I even met him. He has this clear, confident voice that he doesn’t seem capable of lowering, but everyone forgives him for that because he’s such a funny and charismatic personality. The first thing I ever remember learning about him was that he spent some of his high school years in Indonesia, after his oil-and-gas-executive father was transferred to a company site there from their otherwise humble lives in Norman, Oklahoma. As 1993 unfolded, he and I and a third student in our political theory class (P.) became fast friends, and we bonded over a group project where we applied game theory to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bonding consisted partly of calm discussions over sodas in my apartment, and heated arguments in empty classrooms. God, we were so precious.

We eventually lost touch with P. (last we heard, he’d been busted for drug dealing — ya think ya know people), but N. and I remained friends. Over the next few years, though, as our paths and career choices propelled us in different directions, so much of what happened in those early years of our friendship continued to have such profound and lasting effects in my life:

  • In August of 1993, N. took off for a semester-long internship at the U.S. embassy in Singapore. Two days before he left, he told me to go to Academic Computing Services and “ask for a VAX account. If they ask you what for, tell them you need it to get on the Internet.” I remember scribbling all of this down in my notebook, not having any idea what he was talking about. “What’s the Internet?” I still remember his sun-reflecting smile. “It’s a way we can stay in touch in real time for free, just over our computers.” Thank you for introducing me to the Internet, N.
  • When I landed the teaching position in Japan the year after I graduated college, N. was among the first people I called with the news. When I breathlessly screamed into the phone, “Guess what???!!!” he immediately responded with, “You got the job!” Unlike everyone else I’d called, he’d remembered the agony of the months-long wait, and instantly understood the joy that made the phone line between us almost hum. A few months later, in the days before I myself launched into my own adventure in the east, he presented me with a Swiss Army compass as a farewell/good luck gift. “To guide you when you get lost — and I know you will — in your journey.” I still have that compass. Thank you for remembering the important things in my life, N.
  • When I was in Japan, he emailed and said I should visit Singapore, one of his favorite cities in the world, and that if I wanted, I could stay with his mother and stepfather while there. I ended up visiting the city-state twice during my two-year tenure in Japan and instantly fell in love with it, as well as with his delightful parents, who are just as kind, generous and life-giving as N. In fact, I visited again in September of 2008, staying for three weeks, and am now writing a lengthy historical novel based in that city. Thank you for introducing me to what has become my 2nd favorite city in the world, N.
  • In the summer of 1995, I attended his graduation party at his father’s home in Fort Worth, TX. While there, I met the person who would someday introduce me to B., but that was months and months in the future. Thank you for turning what I thought was a fun but otherwise “normal” event into a pivotal moment that would transform the rest of my life, N. 
  • In August of 2001, I attended a two-day board meeting in San Francisco, hosted by a nonprofit for which I volunteered at the time. By then, N. was living in San Francisco, in a two-story, ramshackle Victorian home with a stunning view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. He shared it with a shy but equally friendly roommate named Paul, and they spent their days building and growing what would eventually become their meal ticket (i.e., they later sold the company to a much larger Internet enterprise for a small fortune). On my last day, N. and Paul spent hours taking me to see the sights of the city, and we finished the day flying kites on the beach at Golden Gate Park, in the shadow of the bridge, at sunset. Thank you for what has become my very favorite memory of San Francisco, N.
  • Shortly after I bought our airline tickets to Singapore for our September 2008 visit, B. and I found out that, by sheer coincidence, N. had landed a job launching and managing a global Internet company’s Emerging Markets division, and he could choose to base it anywhere he wanted. Not surprisingly, he had chosen Singapore, and he would be moving there the week after our arrival. I hadn’t seen him since that golden afternoon in San Francisco in the final summer days of 2001, but with our friendship, the years never seem to matter anymore. We had drinks at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel, which has since become my favorite hotel in the world, and then ended that hot, humid and memorable evening sweating over Indian curries at a hawkers’ stall somewhere in the central city. Thank you for yet another unforgettable Singapore memory, N.
  • And just a few weeks ago, I met N. again while I was in San Francisco for a conference. It had been nearly 9 years since our last meeting, 25 years since we first met, but he retains that same charm and warm sincerity that one of my college friends once said was his “magic”. He’s now just become a proud father for the second time and is married to a stunning woman I hope to meet sometime soon. As cheesy as this may sound, I couldn’t be prouder of, or happier for, my friend. We met for drinks (whiskey for him, Riesling for me) at the Lobby Bar of the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I marveled at how very far we’ve come from the days when we thought beers at Dick’s Last Resort in Dallas or midnight coffees at IHOP during finals week were the height of sophistication. And yet, in many ways, we’re still the wide-eyed college seniors we once were, our futures still shrouded in mystery but shimmering with promise.

Thank you, N., for the gift of your timeless friendship. My college buddy was right. You really do have magic.

 

The expiration of the sports bra

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The most eye-popping part of this article about running and training for a half-marathon is this bit:

Ladies, this is also the time to get fitted for a new running bra. Sports bras only last about a year and you should have three in rotation.

Mind. Blown.

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Half my sports bras have been in regular rotation since the Clinton administration. Which means that some of my sports bras are older than many of you kids. Part of me wonders if this is just one more way to get me to spend money to replace an otherwise perfectly functional item, and another part of me delights in an excuse to head to the running store this weekend.

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti.

This is not what we look like

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…writers have looked like other people even when they write (though sometimes their lips move, and sometimes they stare into space longer, and more intently, than anything that isn’t a cat); but their words describe their real faces: the ones they wear underneath. This is why people who encounter writers of fantasy are rarely satisfied by the wholly inferior person that they meet.

“I thought you’d be taller, or older, or younger, or prettier, or wiser,” they tell us, in words or wordlessly.

“This is not what I look like,” I tell them. “This is not my face.”

— Neil Gaiman,
*The View from the Cheap Seats*

Damaging effects of short-term missions

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I don’t think I can add much more to what my colleague Job writes here in a post about the futility, waste and even damage that short-term missions (i.e., those “Spring Break” volunteer opportunities that students and adults alike engage in). Harsh words? Maybe. True words? Yes. I’ve long been suspicious and downright cynical about these “humanitarian missions”, where a big chunk of time on the ground is spent on tourism and feel-good photo opps, and limited (if any) time actually devoted to making any kind of significant progress or difference in the local communities they purportedly benefit. Most of the money donated to these missions is spent on the personal expenses of individual participants (airfare, lodgings, food, and “pocket money”), the total sum of which could probably build and feed an entire village in most rural areas of the world. Why do religious institutions, schools, and otherwise well-meaning charities continue to sponsor and promote these financially inefficient programs, rather than putting more effort into developing, strengthening, and supporting local and national institutions that have demonstrated their commitment to finding long-term solutions and who have a deep understanding of what’s truly needed by the communities they serve?

Job Thomas

During my MA in theology, I wrote a paper on short-term missions (STMs) in January 2010. Seven years later, not much has changed: too little critical reflection on STMs is happening. One of the most prominent Christian mission organisations, YWAM, still includes STMs as part of their discipleship training school’s outreach part.

Having just finished the 2012 edition of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, I am again frustrated. Why are STMs so problematic?

(Numbers between brackets below are page numbers of this book.)

Money down the drain

Research from 2006 shows that Americans alone spent $1.6 billion on STMs (p. 151). Let me repeat that: 1.6 billion US dollars. In a lot of cases, this is money that is used to send people to organise a summer camp, do a paint job, or bring some food over. All things…

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