22 October 2017

What's for Breakfast? How to Feed a Character

A novel is a big thing full of hearty appetites. Even a short story needs a snack. Writers may go to great effort thinking of every other feature of a character's life and lifestyle but may not offer them any sustenance. Food is an afterthought - unless it is central to the scene. On the other hand, do readers really want to know everything that goes into a character's mouth?

One thing I that stood out as I read through George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones books is his attention to what his characters ate. The descriptions were often detailed and made me want to sit down at the table to dine with them. At first it seemed annoying but then I began to think about the kinds of food they really did consume back then, although the fantasy world menu seemed an awful lot like medieval fare from Earth history.

I found the same food feature in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. It seemed every chapter this character or that one were eating and he included every item of food and drink, including Brand names of products. I liked it at first because I could feel like I was in Sweden eating typical Swedish food. But then it became annoying whenever the scene stopped to share with readers the menu of Lisbeth's latest snack.

The full English breakfast will get you through a day
of plowing fields behind a pair of oxen.
When I labored in an MFA program, trying to write the perfect New Yorker-style story, I met with the professor when I was frustrated about what to write. It seemed I could never please him. Character-driven stories, he explained in effusive terms. "I want to know everything about him. I want to know what he had for breakfast!" So I took him at his word and made sure to include food in every story I wrote for the workshop. That "inside joke" has continued in my writing.

I try to walk the fine line between appetizer and dessert. I offer the main dishes but do not go into lavish descriptions of process and procedure, of recipe and presentation. Unless it is integral to the point of the scene. Let's face it: most of what we eat is only to ward off hunger pains. 

Fewer people today, I would guess, dine as entertainment. Sure, eating is fun; tasting food is a form of entertainment, whether it is in a luxurious restaurant or at a street vendor's cart. The scent of food cooking, the spice or sweet of it, the texture of sinking your teeth in the perfect pork belly with just the right dab of Southern barbecue sauce on it, or the crunch of a baguette as you bite into it, the smoothness of a particular local cheese which has both Hatch peppers and blueberries in it - all are delights. And our characters should enjoy what we offer them to eat as much as we do. 

So what if your protagonist likes the same foods as you do? Are those foods available there? If your protagonist is on a quest, roughing it, what kinds of food did he bring or will he find along the way? If you eat Vegan, should your heroine eat no meat also? Is that a political decision or a literary decision? A tough warrior is more likely to dine on roast boar than a fresh spring greens salad - or so I've heard. You can make up foods, too: 

I'nar'r stuffed the boiled guffee into his mouth and bit hard through its outer shell, causing the purple juice to run down his chin and his lips to pucker. 

A lovely spread of Korean dishes.
We don't know exactly what guffee is but we can imagine its size, shape, texture, and color, perhaps it's taste, too. It's part of the research, if you're writing about a real place. As much as fashion and speaking styles. It's probably more fun to try an ancient recipe on a page than in your own kitchen. And don't forget the manners at the dining table, the order of serving, the placement of items. They vary quite a bit; in fantasy they may vary considerably, e.g.: Due to the Klingon's propensity to always be fighting, only small snacks are served, mostly finger foods, and nothing that would take more than a couple minutes to down.

Famous meals my characters have eaten:

In A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, our two protagonists enjoy cooking a batch of chili, the perfect romantic food, right?

     They both worked to put the chili together. She skillfully wielded the carving knife on the vegetables, cutting them down to size, especially the carrots for the salad. She took one carrot and licked the cut end seductively as he pretended to ignore her. Watching the way she cut carrots made him uneasy. He turned away and mixed the chili base in a large pot, measuring out the chili powder and Worcestershire sauce like a scientist. He threw the big clump of ground sirloin into the skillet and they watched it sizzle. She stood next to him, and eventually his arm slid around her waist, later her arm around his, too. When the meat was cooked enough, Íris snatched a pinch and pushed it into his mouth. It was too hot and he spit it out into his hand as she laughed. He liked her laugh, and thought of snowmen and candy canes. They nibbled from the salad bowl as they continued cooking.
While the chili was simmering, they went to bed to satisfy their hunger for dessert. It was midnight before they had dinner.

Out on the road in EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, food is hard to come by. Our hero and his sidekick brought traveling food - which leaves much to be desired after having it day after day:

When the dinner ration was prepared, Tam sauntered over to the communal bowl like he was the Prince of Lakeland—as Corlan teased him, even throwing a covering over his shoulders to affect a cape. He took the first portion of the lumpy gray gruel. One day’s ration, prepared in one bowl. Usually, Corlan took the first portion. Then Gorral and Rupas, alternating each day who went first. Then the boy got to scrape up whatever remained in the bowl. Sometimes there was little left so Corlan, who always held back some of his own until the boy had eaten, would slip some to him.
“Ugh, this stuff is getting to be awful,” Gorral dared grumble.
“If we stayed longer in one place,” said Corlan, “we might go in search of local game.”
“We got a drake one time a long time ago,” Tam exclaimed.

When you live "on the ice", like A GIRL CALLED WOLF did, food is hard to come by:

The next seal he pushed between my feet. He handed me a club and told me to hit the seal’s head with the club. I did not hesitate. Whack! More hits. Blood ran from the mouth of the seal and it lay still.
“Good girl,” the man with the red beard said. “You’ve got deadly hands. The seals are afraid of you!”
I went out with him often to hunt. Sometimes the man with the red beard visited only a single night yet in good weather he might stay several days. When he took me out on a hunt, Mama stayed in the hut. She cooked whatever we brought back—fish, seals, birds, hares.
In summer we gathered berries and bird eggs. I went with Mama up the mountain slopes and along the shore. She said the man with the red beard was sailing on the sea during summer. On the big kayak he would catch many fish, she told me. He would visit later and bring some fish.

Don't forget the Pumpkin spice season!

And what do vampire's eat? Blood mostly. But that seldom makes a gustorially satisfying description. When the hero of A DRY PATCH OF SKIN visits New Orleans to seek treatment for his condition, he partakes of the local cuisine:

Standing on the corner between my hotel and the parking garage, I heard lively music playing. I smelled food. After three days without food, I finally felt hungry. Turning down the street, I chose a place. Inside, I had a dinner of turtle soup, blackened fish with cornbread and greens. I finished with bread pudding. For the second half of the meal I wasn’t sure I could finish everything, but my gut stretched wide and held it. I sat for a while, letting the musicians play on as I started the digestion process. Then I got into my car and drove.

And remember that MFA story with breakfast? Here it is, from my story "The Preacher Only Shoots Twice":

Your heroine could be having noodles.
     When he quietly closed the door of his Volvo and stepped lightly up the wooden exterior staircase, fake smile poised, ready to fire at will, he had a premonition that this was not going to be his day. His snitch had already told him they would all be at home watching the big football game this afternoon. He knew it would be the perfect time for a gunpowder sermon. They would break bread together. But feeling the greasy sausage and grits turning in his belly, the scent of maple syrup on buttermilk pancakes wafted through his memory. His daughter had loved her mother’s pancakes. He loved them, too. And Belgian waffles. Fancy omelets with everything. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and café au lait. Canadian bacon grilled in a honey-wine sauce, and hash-brown potatoes, on chilly days. On hot summer mornings they had eaten pecan-mixed multi-grain flakes with peaches or strawberries and full-fat milk. Powdered sugar-sprinkled blueberry muffins were his wife’s favorites, he recalled sadly, feeling hungry once again. But he maintained his strict diet, the stricter the better.

So next time you sit down (or stand) to dine, imagine what your characters would like to eat. How would they order in a rustic tavern? What would they be able to gather off the land as they traveled? How would they prefer their hruks'thoo fried and what sauce would they dip it in? Apparently most people choose the bittersweet jil'il sauce made from the berries of the woohoo tree, but not me. I always choose the umm'thm sauce, which adds a lovely sourness to the hruks'thoo

Or, if your vampires characters are in Budapest, try the gulyash. It's excellent!

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

08 October 2017

Understanding the Horror in Horrible

It has been a horrible week. Reality has been too loud, too immediate, yet somehow distant when projected through the filters of social media and mainstream news reporting. What we feel is muted, in some way, because of the increasing frequency of events and the routine reportage. It may be similar to an aficionado of the horror genre who reads too much and becomes jaded, unable to be frightened any longer. Are we there yet?

October has just begun. As Halloween approaches, we accept the once a year opening of the door to the underworld and the unseen and possibly the undead, as well, it may be the best time to also reflect on what makes horror horrible...er, uh, scary. (You knew what I meant, right?)

Ever have a scary dream? Maybe it awakens you in the middle of the night and you don't know where you are. Maybe you still feel those pin picks or knife cuts in your skin. Perhaps your throat feels tight and the skin is rough from where the rope scraped. You might have been sensing the increasing pressure of heavy stones laid upon a barn door which was itself laid over you, all the better to extract a fictitious confession. 

Or perhaps your brand of scary is biting into a chocolate birthday cake and instead of pleasure, finding crunched up bits of cricket or other "foreign" matter there. Perhaps the beverage served reminds you a bit too much of freshly squeezed blood, donated by the kid who did not bring any gift. Or the sandwich you packed for lunch today somehow tastes strangely like human flesh instead of what it is: braised cow tongue. You open the lunch box and there are cockroaches squirming about. Is that your kind of scary?

Still another kind of scary is logging on the Internet - or, just as easily, flipping on the television - and there they are: so many stories of horror happening all around us and across the world. Killings of all kinds done in many creative forms. Solo assassins, self-designated mayhem artists, gangs of revengers, harmful idiots out for their own entertainment at the folly of anyone who gets in the way. Or the larger forms of them: armies of nations or parts of them doing the same thing: creating chaos for its own sake or the sake of someone's power structure. Where is the candy?

Or take it down to street level in your local town. Same thing: street thugs, simpletons with weapons, angry for anger's sake, and loners with axes to grind, guns to shoot, people to kill--for the sake of Halloween? Nope. Just people afraid of people, shooting before shaking hands. People afraid of their own shadows--or the lingering shadows of the previous night's dream. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" It's all the same in an unsettling way: a spark of angst in the middle of the brain and we shriek. Meeting the tiger in the jungle or the human on the street, which worries you more?

Whether the horror is on the screen in a movie theater or on the page in a book, the mind provokes the body into a certain set of sensations and we act or react. Let the horror be real or let it be a fictitious fright. We feel it the same way biologically. And yet, the fictitious kind usually leaves us stronger, more confident, even less afraid, while the real horrors leave us in constant terror, constant stress, that we cannot simply put down or walk away from when we've had enough. That is the true horror of the horrors around us. 

Halloween is coming. Is it too little an event now? Is it too unscary compared to the real world today? Is it more trick than treat? Is it becoming a little better, or are we not yet at the peak? Be safe in your own little world and, at least for a night, pretend that all you have to worry about is a bad dream that will go away when you open your eyes. Or (it's happened to me too often), a lot of children ringing the doorbell after you've already given out your last bag of candy corn.
Looking forward to a day when this is the scariest thing we will see.
If you liked this rant, I accept donations of Kit-Kat and Jelly Belly jelly beans (any flavor). Thanks.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

24 September 2017

The Future of Sequels

It is a fate worse than death: to be undead yet stuck with your vampire parents. After 13 years Stefan Szekely can stand them no longer. He wants to get a castle of his own. But first he must make his way to his family's bank in Budapest.
With endless strife across Europe, Stefan hardly recognizes Budapest. Nevertheless, he embarks on the reign of terror he always denied himself, living the playboy lifestyle, being a bad vampire. Until he gets a stern warning from the local vampire clan: You are not welcome!
Should Stefan fight for his right to party like it's 2027? Or flee to the spa resort he bought and ignore the world? Or will an encounter with a dangerous stranger change everything? Or will State Security actions ruin this vampire homeland?

In 2014 my medically accurate vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN came out to a rave review. My main purpose was to counter the hysteria of the Twilight experience with some medical research crossed with established legends. I wanted to tell a realistic vampire tale. I even set the story in my own city and the action in the story followed the actual days and months I was writing the story. The story and my writing of the story ended the same week. Of course, I revised and edited after that.

Then I thought . . . what would happen next? So I chose a gap of, say, 13 years (the number seems significant in horror stories). Where did I leave my protagonist? How is he doing? What could have happened since then? What has changed in the world during these 13 years? How would what's different in the world affect his own corner of the world?

As I started out on another vampire story I quickly realized that I had to also write a science-fiction story. If I were setting the story 13 years after the end of the previous novel, then this sequel would be set in 2027. 

What did I know of 2027? Not much. Like many sci-fi writers writing about the future, I took the present circumstances, the way things are now, and extrapolated how they might logically progress. Remember that novel by George Orwell, 1984? It was published in 1948 just as fears of a Communist takeover gripped Europe. It was supposed to be a warning.

With the current strife in Europe, mass immigration, the increase in crime, the open warfare between left and right groups, I could see that extending, continuing and growing through the following decade. The moral question that arises is whether the author should follow his/her own beliefs, that is, how the world should be, a Utopian view - or choose a path of development which would be the best setting for the story (given the plot that would unfold), however the society might become - or try to take an honest look at current events and let things fall where they might, for good or ill.

I chose both. For the sake of the story and for the way I think society will continue to "progress" or develop or evolve over the next 10 years, I'm letting the European conflicts play out in the sequel: my now less-medically accurate vampire novel, titled SUNRISE.

Today, Hungary and Poland are resisting accepting refugees and other immigrants and the European Union chastises them for it. Both nations have refused to comply with orders from Brussels and are threatened with economic punishment. Jump ahead 10 years (from now; 13 from the end of the previous novel) and these countries have broken away from the European Union, formed their own economic block and run business as usual in ways which are more to their liking. 

As described in this sequel, the Hungarian Federation (Poland is a separate nation but an ally) is a strictly run Euro-centrist society. The State Security apparatus runs a tidy ship and getting in is very problematic. Staying in if you are a "diseased" resident such as a vampire is dangerous. However, our hero, Stefan Szekely, is already within the boundaries of the Hungarian Federation at his family's estate in the former Croatia; therefore, I, the author, must deal with the vagaries of that location.

Needless to say, our hero has difficulties - or there wouldn't be a story. Yet as I charge through the final chapters, the look and feel, the horrors, and the dystopian ambiance seem right. Will he escape from the repressive Hungarian Federation? Or will evil powers greater than himself and the vampire clans of Budapest have the final say?

Regardless, in SUNRISE the world gets darker before the light shines again.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 September 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 5

I need to slip this blog about my summer vacation in between hurricanes. With only two classes each week, I had time for sightseeing but because I had seen everything before, it was harder to find something else to see. Fortunately, I had a friend guide me to a new corner of the city: the 798 Art Zone.

During my first summer trip to Beijing I had cravings for tacos but quickly discovered that the only tacos in Beijing were at a handful of cafes run by ex-pat Westerners. One of them was located in this corner of Beijing but the subway route to get there required 4 lines. As it turned out, this was in the Art Zone.

I met my guide, codename: Maria, outside my hotel on a Sunday morning. She arrived on one of the millions of rental bikes (where you dial in a code number on an app on your smart phone and the bike is unlocked). 

We walked up the street to the bus stop to go to the Art Zone. I've always been wary of riding buses because I don't know where they will go. But with my guide, I felt safe. I used my subway pass for the bus. It was a 40 minute bus ride, no changes. 

Going to see more of the northeast corner of the city, off the edge of my map. I saw us pass a sign marking the division between Chaoyang district and Wangjing district, near Wangjing park. 

Finally we got off the bus and walked a bit, looking for a place to have lunch. We decided to find the Art Zone first, then look for lunch. We backtracked and crossed a wide avenue and entered the 798 Art Zone, where a big sign indicated the district. If you had been looking right at it you would've seen it. Lots of old brick and tile factories had been converted into artists’ studios and small galleries. Lots of cafes and bars, too. 
Translation: "The First Breakfast"
"The Four Moods of Stephen"
Searching for a good place for lunch, we paused to get drinks: latte for me, fruit smoothie for her. We went next to a café and ordered a Hawaiian pizza with a Caesar salad. Nothing more American than that. It was very good and exactly like what I would have had in the US. I almost forgot I was in China. 

Then we walked around looking at strange public art, taking photos, entering small galleries—hoping people would buy the art—and joking together about what we saw. It was nice to have a leisurely day out looking at art. 

Eventually, we got thirsty so we stopped in at a place for a drink. Instead, we got a large dish of mango sherbet with cubes of mango. Very delicious! As it turned out, none of the cafes or restaurants or even the galleries had much A/C going. Outside it was the usual hot, humid weather. The galleries seemed to have only enough cool air to be able to make the claim it was on. We talked about all sorts of trivial topics, including how to interpret modern art. I think we are supposed to imagine what the artist was thinking and/or drinking when he or she painted it. We must use metaphor and personification, even if it hurts. Many tags next to artwork suggested the inspiration came from a dream.

Once upon a time I learned about art from a real art student, but I had to throw all that out the window in this district. I saw a lot of red and a lot of Mao-suit-influenced designs. The melding of old and new was a common theme. Attempts to create the fantastic, to shock or provoke introspection, appeared on every corner and in half the galleries. I eventually reached the threshold of interpretation and gave up.

I did not buy any art: too big, too bold, too expensive for my meager means.

When we decided to go back to the campus, I suggested we have dinner there in one of the small restaurants around the campus. But as we walked in the direction to exit the Art Zone, we saw a restaurant promoting gourmet hamburgers. One was a Mexican hamburger. I was hooked. We decided to have our dinner there. But we were not yet hungry, so we continued to walk around, visit some shops, see other streets and alleys, and circled back to the hamburger restaurant. We got cold drinks first, talked, then ordered our hamburgers. It was a good dinner.

The dinner gave us some more energy, so we could start walking back to the bus stop. On the way, she saw a McDonald's in a shopping mall so we went in to get some ice cream as our dessert. Instead of the small vanilla cones I expected, they were promoting large fancy cones, with some decorations, so I got a mango dessert cone and she got a green tea cone. We finished our desserts sitting inside, then we continued on to the bus stop.

Waiting at the bus stop to return to the campus, we talked about everything important in life, such as my vampire book and the sequel I was writing in my hotel room. She is a fan of vampire stories, so I offered to let her be a character in the sequel. Talk of how I got the idea for the book led to discussions of current geopolitics. 

Still we waited for the bus. Several others stopped but they were not the one to return us to the campus. I was just happy to chat longer. I felt sad when our bus finally arrived and we got on it.

To see yourself in the Hanged Man is a good omen, right?
As we arrived at our stop by the campus and got out, we went to the crosswalk and said our goodbyes. A sad moment. It was a long but fun day, the best day of my summer vacation. I did something I never could have done by myself, plus I enjoyed being with Maria. 

After walking with her through the campus, I returned to my hotel. On the way back, I see the corner laundry is still open so I pop in to pick up my clothes for the coming week. A win-win!

That night, I reflected on all that I had seen during the day, and all that I had felt and said and heard and thought. It was a lot. Then I wrote poetry. It's what I do. It's what we all do when visiting the 798 Art Zone.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

10 September 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 4

Because there is likely to be some bad news every week, I cannot delay further telling about my little summer vacation. Apologies to those without the electricity to read this. My heart truly goes out to you; I've been in your shoes. 

When I go to Beijing, China in the summer to teach a course in business writing for American audiences, I arrive as planned on a Saturday but with little fanfare. I meet the first class on Monday full of jet-lag and improve greatly for the second class on Wednesday. Then I have a four-day weekend looming. Since I've seen all the big sites of Beijing, this first weekend I decided to check out a few small places I found on my map.

East end of the long, long park.
This year, on my first weekend, I set out with map in hand to find a park which had the ruins of the Yuan Dynasty outer fortress walls. I had passed it previously but never gave it much thought. One hardly thinks of ruins as something to see. After conquering my first bout of "Mao's revenge" and trying to sleep through the night while someone was singing with a karaoke machine in the park across the street from my hotel room, I had to get out - for my own good. My plan was to go out early before it got too hot but with a poor sleep I slept in a bit, then got up to write/edit my latest novel, the sequel to my vampire novel A DRY PATCH of SKIN. Then the housekeeper came, always within 5 minutes of 10 am. Then it was 11. 

Finally I got myself ready, thinking I could at least go to the nearest McDonald's for lunch, something to do. I'm not a regular of McD back home but when in foreign countries it provides a brief semblance of normalcy. So I checked my official Beijing 2008 Olympics map, which had all the McDs marked for advertising purposes, and decided to try a route that would take me to a different McD which I had never visited. I left my hotel, crossed the big avenue, and ducked into the park that ran parallel to the avenue. That was the Yuan Dynasty ruins.

West end pavilion.
Well, not much of the ruins existed at that location. On the map the park extended quite some distance to the west from where I started. So I walked...actually, it was a gentlemanly stroll. Most of the route was shaded by trees, thankfully. I walked along the ruins of the ancient walls, worn down to about a meter or less in height, like old teeth. It made a really nice park along an empty canal, with trees, flowers, play areas for children. Many families were taking advantage of the park but it was not crowded at all. 

At the west end there was an expanded area with statues of Yuan Dynasty people in all their finery, of modern construction but still interesting. They stood on top of a pavilion, just as real may have done at that spot a long time ago. As a writer, trying to create fictitious or historical settings, I find being at the site of ancient things to be fascinating. Like, did those people long ago ever imagine that some tourist teacher from American would one day be wiping his sweaty brow while standing on their pavilion? Probably not. More important things to plan for. But the location did make for nice photos. I always like to contrast old and new in the same picture: the existential theme of the impermanence of permanence. Here and gone. Like the wind. 

A modern depiction of those Yuan folks!
I exited the park at a formal gate, drenched in sweat from the hot sun. A girl handing out hand fans with advertising for a fitness center on it, gave me one. Thanks! I really needed a fan at that point. Following my map, I planned and walked along the tree-lined avenue to my destination: a department store with a McD

Add caption
The McD was busy when I entered. At the sight of a foreigner they whip out the English menu but I knew what I wanted and simply pointed to the picture overhead of one of their specials. I was able to get a table, too, so I enjoyed a leisurely lunch although the food tasted as expected; I guess it had been a while so it wasn’t that good. Then I went down a couple doors to a coffee shop I saw as I arrived at the McD. Inside, it was very Western and the A/C was great! I ordered an iced latte, took a table and relaxed. I even read 2 chapters of a paperback I’d brought with me.

Next I planned to go further and check out a science & technology museum I saw on the map. There was also a temple nearby. When I walked to the big interchange where the museum was, it seemed to be under renovation. I could not see where to enter or if it was even open. As for the temple, I could not see any sign of it but for a square of trees among a lot of high-rise buildings. It was hot and late enough in the afternoon that I decided I had accomplished enough for the day. It was time to walk back, probably about 5 kms by then. I followed the map, choosing a different route just for variety, and there was a subway station! 

Public flower pots along busy avenue!
I checked my map and route chart in the station to see how to get home. The station where I was required 2 transfers to get to the station nearest my hotel. So I did that. Except I went one station too far, past the closest one. Remembering my error last year, I made sure of the directions before I set out along the busy avenue. It was a fairly pleasant walk, despite the temperature being 95. Much of the sidewalk was shaded by trees. Finally I arrived at the intersection I was hoping for: the one where the Starbucks is located. I was right! 

Bus stop. I don't trust buses because I don;t know where they go.
Feeling how wonderful an iced latte would taste right then, I walked south enough to be able to look over to see if the Starbucks was really there—it was—but then I could not cross the avenue. Barriers had been set up so nobody could cross. I decided I was close enough to home to just keep going. It was 5 pm and dinner time, but I did not want any hot food, so I popped in at the Subway restaurant near the campus and got a sandwich and drink. Then I went to the 7-11 for more drinks, then to the hotel. As it turned out, that Subway sandwich with all its "fresh" veggies, introduced "Mao's revenge" to me again.

NEXT: The 798 Art Zone

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

27 August 2017

The Week That Was...Or Shouldn't've Been

What a week! First the solar eclipse then the terrifying hurricane. Plus the day job. I need a break so here is some poetry from my Twitter (@StephenSwartz1). It's not great, obviously, but trying to fit a poem into a tweet is worth the challenge.


The eclipse is here
So be a dear
Bring me some glasses
As fast as
You can
Cuz I never plan

When the moon
Comes too soon
To the late afternoon
You must swoon
Like a loon
& sing a tune

Darken me now
O big moon cow!
Make the sun go away
Come again another day
It's a two minute wow!

The thrill has come
The thrill is done
Were we dumb?
Was it fun?
Just being a bum
Under the silly sun.

*The trick of poetry on Twitter is the 140 character limit.


It's Friday & Harvey comes to town
Make your way quick or you'll drown!
Stay high & dry
Or question why
Clime change follows you around!

(The following were not written on Twitter:)

The port of last resort:
Full mugs, laughs, a snort 

Before the winds blow hard
And the tide crashes in
"Thoughts and prayers," the bard
Cries loud, "We shall win!

Yet our revelry we must abort!"

Picking up the pieces, such a chore
Wish we were burdened with a bore

Scattered near and far
Missing our favorite bar
When we need a drink the most--

We survived! And that's our boast!

Awkward summers abroad and ill-thought doggerel composed between classes is how I fight off dementia, so be kind in your comments, as my parents might read them. Until next time, adieu! Stay high & dry & love thy neighbor.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

20 August 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 3

How to Return

It seems much easier to go than to return. Rather, it is easier to go to some place new and different than it is to pack up and return home. At least, in my experience. When it was time for me to return home after I went to Beijing to teach a course at a university, there were enough problems to make a blog post!

Having scoped out the Beijing Capital Airport on my previous trips, I knew where to go, what the best timing was, and how to prepare for the gauntlet. My first trip I went through San Francisco, which meant a noon-ish departure from Beijing. This is actually impossible. Even when my Plan A was to go to a hotel beside the airport to save taxi time. (You can recount that ordeal in this blog post.) My second trip, I went through Chicago, which meant a 4 p.m. departure, which was much better.

This time, I made my way to the big, shiny Hilton Hotel next to Terminal 3 (the international terminal). I'm not a rich person or a celebrity but I like to play one when I'm traveling. Actually, I selected that hotel purely because it is literally the closest hotel to the terminal. So to make my send-off spectacular, after checking in and being treated like royalty, I invited a dear friend to dine with me in a very expensive restaurant on the premises. 

When she finally arrived (subway from the city to the airport, then hotel shuttle from terminal to hotel), we went to the lobby cafe for some tea. I just ordered "Oolong" which is about all the teas I know. The uniformed server brought us a full tea service. We just stared at it, not sure what to do. There was a pair of cups for each of us, one tall narrow cup upside-down in the shorter, wider cup. In the middle of the tray was a small teapot. To the sides were apparatus somewhat familiar. We sipped the tea that had been poured. Still confused, we asked for instruction. Ahhhhh! It all made sense! We continued drinking our tea until we felt hungry. (*See instructions below.)

Dinner was a multi-course extravaganza that mixed Asian and Western foods, plus the right wine to go with each course. First was the bread and salad, then soup, then main course of cod and lamb, then dessert. As delicious and artistically presented as the food was, however, the best part of the dinner was the thoroughly delightful conversation about very important matters, which made the dinner seem to last for years. In a good way, of course.

Alas, finally, it had to end. Strolling about the huge hotel, all the marble walls, floors, and columns echoing every secret, we knew it was time to part. Another summer visit done. It was truly sad - but also a happy evening. It was the perfect way to end my 4-week visit to Beijing and begin my travel home.

After pleasant dreams, I arose as planned and made my way to the VIP lounge for the breakfast buffet. Plenty of time, no rushing. I had packed my suitcase full of laundry already. So I went down to the lobby at the appointed time, carefully measuring everything like a billiard player. Check out, get on the shuttle, arrive at the terminal, go up the elevator, and walk over to the check-in counter of my airline. Piece of cake.

My impeccable timing had me arriving at the counter with no one ahead of me in line. I was between the flights! Mwah-hah-hah! After getting rid of my laundry (in suitcase), I strolled to the first of several choke points in the departure process. First was the gate beyond which only those with boarding passes may go. Then the tram to the outer terminal. And so on. (You can read about the steps required in this blog.)

Due to my perfect timing, everything went according to plan. I even had a spare set of clothes to wear after going through all of the lines and sweating out the clothes I began the day with. No need to wear "used" clothes during a 13 hour flight. Plus 3 hour layover. Plus the 2 hour flight to my home city. I had tried that one set of clothing for the whole 24 hour gamut and those sitting next to me were not pleased.

Boarding the flight, I took the window seat I had chosen, thinking I could lean that way and sleep. Unfortunately, the window well did not match with the seat back, so it made my neck twist at an uncomfortable angle. Not even the soft new neck pillow I got with my last Yuan helped. Then the seatmate arrived. He was scheduled to sit next to me, the middle seat, with a girl on the aisle. She quickly claimed an empty seat in another row and the young man in the middle seat graciously moved to the aisle seat to give us both more room.

Why was more room a good thing? Because from the time this young man boarded, he was sniffling. We had to wait about an hour before we could actually take off into the sky. In that time, he rushed to the lavatory twice, his hand clutching his mouth, a sure sign of oral evacuation. I do not wish to alarm the senses of my readers, so I will allow you to use your imagination. Flight attendants nursed him throughout the flight. I tried not to breathe the same air. He began with chills, shivering, blankets all around but later in the flight had discarded them for what cool cabin air there was to bring down his fever. 

Twelve hours later I was sniffling. My throat felt scratchy. I tried to hold on. Indeed, I made it through the connecting hassles in Chicago and made it all the way home. The next morning I experienced what that young man must have been feeling during the flight. Stomach malady, with chills then fever, and evacuation from both ends. A miserable existence. I doubt I picked up his digestive illness; rather, it was yet another bout of "Mao's revenge" that I had been fighting throughout my visit. 

It is unfortunate that while we cannot choose our parents we also cannot chose our neighbors on an airplane. Nor can we be comfortable with whatever we may eat. That is what makes the world so exciting. Will one need to rush home at a moment's notice? Or will one need to make a pit stop in order to remain polite and decorous? There are maladies a plenty, something for everyone. At least I was not so indisposed for my wonderful send-off evening! Nor for the entirety of my 24 hours of travel back home!

Next: Mao's Revenge

*Instructions for the tea service. The tall, narrow tea cup which was presented upside-down in the short, wide cup is meant to be removed and sniffed. Yes, to enjoy the scent of the tea which has collected inside the tall, narrow cup. Then, when satisfied with the fragrance, the tea leaves are compiled into the holder inside the teapot. Hot water is added. Time will turn the tea leaves and water into "tea". Pour the tea from the teapot into the short, wide cup. (Frankly, the short, wide cup only holds one sip's worth of tea; I use a super-sized mug from the airport gift shop [see photo].) To keep the tea leaves from infusing the hot water too long and creating a bitter taste, the strainer inside the teapot should be removed and set upon the holder (on the left in the photo of the tray above). Continue to drink tea until the teapot is near empty. Because we sat in a tea cafe a hostess visited regularly to refill our teapot with more hot water. It could have been an endless, bottomless teapot but for our need to transition to solid food for the next phase of the evening.

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