Monday, February 9, 2015

My Uncle Albert sings amongst the stars now

My Uncle Albert passed this morning. A man of 90 years, he took long strides in eras and decades that reshaped this world in so many ways. More importantly to our family, he was a great, grand voice.

Eldest of my father's siblings. Glib and cheerful, full of laughter and strong will.

That's Albert Ruth.

I think about the piece of his 90 years I have been around for and it does not feel like enough time to catch every smile, hear every joke, or listen to every story. He gave so much to all of us; including when my mother passed exactly two years ago yesterday.

What follows is what I wrote for him some 10 years ago for his 80th birthday.

My Uncle Albert’s voice, resonating clearly and strongly across any room, is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of him. His voice has marked every important family gathering I can recall. When there is a wedding, expect to hear his rendition of Ave Maria floating into your ears. When there is a humorous story to be told, expect to hear his laughter punctuating the telling.
He is a devout man who has served his church as an elder and shared his graceful voice with his community as a choir member. He is a kind leader, eldest of his siblings and a guide to his grateful nieces and nephews. He is a veteran of World War II, a master of fashion and a traveler to the exotic far reaches of the globe. Few can claim to have witnessed and participated in the history he has been a party to. Fewer still can say they have affected and moved people the way he does with his voice, his stories and his presence. Listen carefully when my Uncle Albert speaks and be prepared to have your spirit stirred.

I wish I could share the tenor of his songs with others. and let them feel how he made the world rumble. There are recordings of him out there, but I have the luxury of playing back each note from my memories.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On the Matter of My Birthday

I had been trying to think of something meaningful and profound to say today, but then I realized that my birthday is no more (or less) significant than anyone else's.

A birthday is a time when you get to embrace the people who are there for you and remember those faces you miss. A birthday is when you hope the world shines a little brighter on you, even if it were raining.

Growing up, you look forward to presents and such. As an adult, the piles of gifts get smaller, or perhaps they turn into more expensive toys. Maybe you throw big lavish parties, maybe you have a quiet night alone sipping on a lush glass of Malbec while savoring a glittering skyline. Maybe it's a night without candles or cake, but it still remains that this day marks the moment you became part of the wide world.

There are smiles I truly wish I could see today, but can't (either by circumstance or the widening distance that comes with time.) There are laughs that have made my daily toils seem comical.

So, in lieu of brownies or crème brulee, this year I offer a thought: savor the people who make every breeze feel fresh as spring and summer. Indulge in joys that make others blush, and be brilliant in all that you do.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Composure in the Face of All Storms

There is word going around about a news anchor, Lee Chingyu, in Taiwan who wound up reading a breaking report on the air about the death of her own friend.

As a fellow journalist, this wrenches my heart. She did her job, which is to share information in a coherent clear manner even under extreme circumstances. It isn't easy being the person whose duty is to maintain your composure so accurate details, good or painful, gets to the public.

However, some folks online are unfortunately complaining that she needed to let her emotions out on camera. Moreover, some are using this occasion to pounce on journalists as a whole for being unfeeling sensationalists.

I vehemently disagree with those sentiments.

When Walter Cronkite reported to America and the world that President Kennedy had been killed, he held it together and got the story out. But his emotions were just a breath away. That's what journalism is, not making the story about yourself and not gratifying other people's voyeuristic need to see someone break down.

In this case, a reporter was caught with shocking, personally painful news. The only way she probably got through it was by plowing ahead. And if you can't hear that in her voice and see it in her face, you may want to check your own level of empathy.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Peace Lily on Mother's Day

My apartment is a bit greener these days, something I owe to my mother.

Historically, I was not much for flowers or gardening. That was one of her hobbies. Each spring, I would drive her to make the rounds to outdoor garden shops so she could peruse various perennials. She always enjoyed seeing the new blooms, and did a fair amount of trash talk about flowers that were not cared for properly.

Me, I don't know the difference between a chrysanthemum and a daffodil without looking them up. When I moved into my current abode, a good friend gave me a bamboo plant that has endured over the years in spite of me.

After my mother passed away last year, I kept the peace lily that someone sent to the funeral service. At first, I only meant to look after it until I found it a reasonable home. My days are a grind of writing and editing news, writing and rewriting fiction, and making the rounds through Manhattan. Tending to plants was not part of my routine.

But then the peace lily remained in my possession. I fumbled through learning to tend to it, scratched my head when its leaves drooped, and smiled when it bounced back.

A few weeks ago though, it looked like it was bound to crumple in on itself. I made the mistake of exposing it to all the wrong elements. So I finally started paying more attention to its needs. After an emergency repotting and pruning, I managed to save it. Moreover, I learned what I had been doing wrong all along and I bought a second peace lily.

The thing about peace lilies is they literally clean the air. Like a mother's love, a peace lily makes every breath more free from the things that can weigh you down---if you nurture it properly.

I encourage everyone this Mother's Day to cultivate the peace lilies in their lives.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Unicorns in the Forest: Books and Diversity

The WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign kicks off this afternoon, aimed at encouraging more diversity in literature and among the writers who get into print.

And while I laud the intent, I hope this effort goes deeper than feel-good window-dressing.

Pardon my cynicism, it is a bit like saying you're hunting for unicorns in the forest---but they have actually been in plain view the whole time.

Let me explain.

The trigger behind this movement was a call for more children's books that feature a broader array of protagonists, as well as a wish for more writers from diverse backgrounds. The campaign that started today is apparently spreading to more genres beyond the youth market.

We should not kid ourselves though that right now, the youth market is HUGE for publishing. It is the low-hanging fruit. (One of the frustrating things I hear from people in the industry is the perception that "men don't read," which has shaped some publishing decisions. THAT I find to be insulting.)

So the youth audience is a gold mine that the industry is anxious to tap more thoroughly---more readers from all walks. Part of it comes from the vast success seen with the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books. That pipeline needs to be refilled constantly.

The industry craves titles with wildfire popularity because, from a business perspective, books are products that need to be sold and not sit idly on store shelves. When I talk shop with other writers, we say, "you've got a good product" when discussing our work. It's an unromantic way of looking at books, but it is honest.

And the publishing world shifts like the wind based on how well products move. As soon as something becomes hot, the market gets flooded with copycat material. There's no altruism about good literature driving such choices; publishers need to hit revenue targets and agents need clients who can fill the pipelines with desirable products.

Some genres seem to be built on repetitive, cookie cutter books. I dare say, the going belief is that the bread-and-butter audience of certain genres would revolt if something too different landed in front of them.

How tough is it to bring real, sustainable diversity to publishing, and NOT just when it is a popular thing to do? Here's an excerpt from a rejection I got a couple years ago. This agent was enthusiastic about my work but still said:

"I think the writing is good and I enjoyed reading the material. However, I’m a bit at a loss at what direction I would take in presenting this material for sale." 

That could be taken as a mere, "not the right fit" response. However, I know that the book in question breaks numerous expectations of the genre, especially pushing hard in terms of diversity. I knew it would be a hard sell, but I believe in the strength of the material.

So I see today as a chance for the publishing world to open up more, but I challenge the industry to not treat this moment as a way to take a pat on the back, and then return to business as usual.

Be willing to support diversity across all age, ethnic, social, and gender categories, for people of all backgrounds, because those youths you claim to want to feed new material to will grow up. And then they will be unicorns searching the forest for more to read . . .

Flame and Bone

When I was made from fire
Poured into the tender vessel of caution
That keeps my smoke from rising
Quickly did I discover that apart from crisp drizzles or falling snow
The world chilled my touched
Walking the narrow cornered gap between girders and cut stone
One learns to tuck his shoulders in or risk
Jostling a neighbor passing by rapt with want
For a clear path without the distraction
Of another man's boiling eyes
The tip of a finger
That oldest of all weapons
Grown deadlier and pristine in its invention
Gathers a mote of a cinder on its bare flesh
And turns pondering how best to scratch the impious itch
Prying open the tender seam
Where the oil of thought dews
Offering a new wick to ignite
Squirming alive as a salamander of mischief
That yearns for a taste of air it is so ready to devour
The steam of breath betrays me
Before the glint of orange spreads
In popping bright waves
Eroding the fibers feeding it
Leaving naught but ash
As my shell of quietude falls away