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Let the Story Lead You: Spain

I grew up traveling — lived in different countries, visited others. It’s a pattern I carried into my adult life.  And I was particularly lucky that I had parents who really knew how to travel.  They were adventurous, curious and open. That doesn’t mean they climbed the Himalayas or hitchhiked across Patagonia.  But they were readers. And through their reading they learned about new places, people and cultures. Often they would then venture forth and experience them in person.

They’d always have one real guidebook — given my father’s complete inability to get from point A to point B without visiting points D, K and L first.  But the books they used to guide them were memoirs, travelogues and novels.  I vividly remember the first time I became aware of their ingenious travel secret.  They were living in Spain and we had decided to do a cross-country trip from Barcelona to Madrid.

For that trip we used James Michner’s Iberia,  a memoir of his time in Spain during the nineteen-sixties. The writing is amazing. His images breathtaking.  Spain had changed enormously by the late seventies when we took our trip. But using him as our guide gave us so much appreciation of what was enduring and what was changing.

When we got to Granada,  I found an old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of the Alhambra.  It was a weekday and past tourist season, so I had time to roam or linger with little disruption. As I sat in the cool shade near of one of the courtyards reading “The Legend of the Three Beautiful Princesses,”  I was transported back in time. I could see the valley they gazed over. I had walked past the fountains of the gardens in their gilded cage. I could picture their escape. What a magical afternoon.

If you venture to Spain, I heartily recommend you consider reading Iberia and Tales of the Alhambra before or as you go. There are lots of other books, of course. Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Two classics set during the Spanish Civil War:
Homage to Catalonia  by George Orwell
For Whom the Bell Tolls  by Ernest Hemingway

And a couple more modern contributions:
Shadow of the Wind  by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (translated by Lucia Graves), again partially set during the Civil War. This is a rich, lyrical, mystical, very Spanish work — I personally enjoyed it most in the audio version.
Madrid Tales  — an anthology of Spanish short stories translated by Helen Constantine and Margaret Jull Costa. Not all the stories will appeal, but they are a great initiation into modern Madrid, and Spain.

Happy reading and bon voyage.




I’m a reader. I’m also an (unpublished) author. I find it disturbing to see how heated and angry the conversation gets about how to read a book. Apparently  the decision to read a physical book, a Kindle, a Nook, an e-book or listen to an audiobook is a reflection of your worth as a reader or perhaps even a person.

People, what’s the problem? Why does it matter as long as someone’s reading.

Personally I revel in those times when I curl up with a book in a comfy chair and can lose myself in another world. But I find it easier to snuggle in bed with my Kindle — books can be awkward to handle when you’re buried in pillows and dogs. And since getting my Kindle, I’ve been reading a lot more books. Because now I can read wherever I am and whatever I’m in the mood for.

As for audiobooks? On road-trips they’re a godsend. Plus I’ve found listening to an audiobook in the car is one way I can get through some of those books I find hard to stay focused on when I just sit and read. One of my favorites (long out of print) is The Vandal’s Crown,  which is about currency trading, of all things, something I’d normally never even try, but which I found fascinating as I drove from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.  I now deliberately choose the audio format for denser books just in the hopes I’ll actually manage to read them (unlike so many that sit on my shelves, pristine, dusty and unread).

Does this mean that I’m any less of a reader? I don’t think so. And frankly if and when I ever get published, please feel free to read me in whatever format you prefer.  Just please read me.


I rarely read comments following a news story, but recently I happened to scroll down after reading about an incident of bullying and was shocked at the vitriolic, mean-spirited exchanges.

I expected hate aimed at the bullies, although I’m never sure how much good that does. In this case, more rage was directed at how people were reacting (having rallies of support, planning better training in schools), how various groups raised their children and finally at the various communities themselves within the larger metropolitan area. I finally stopped reading as the discussion degenerated into name-calling and arguing points ad absurdum.

What I found ironic was that while decrying the intolerance/ ignorance/hypocrisy of the parents/communities/authorities, the commentators displayed those very same qualities.

And why shouldn’t they? The religious and the secular, the liberal and the conservative, we’ve all become so accustomed to hearing and considering only those opinions we agree with, that the very concept of exchanging ideas has become alien.

I admit it, I’m liberal, but I put great stock in politeness, civility and moderation. I can, and do, react strongly at times to someone’s behavior — be it their words or their actions — but try my best to focus on the behavior itself and not use it to judge the an individual’s worth or humanity.

After all, I’m no saint. There are times when in my head I draw sweeping, stereotypical and embarrassing conclusions. And as I work hard to make sure those thoughts don’t contaminate the universe, they serve to remind me of my own need to practice what I preach.

So feel free to disagree with what I say, but please don’t assume it encompasses everything I am or aspire to be.


Cheetah, Namibia

Don’t get so stuck in the fast lane of life you forget to just be.

Every once in a while I push myself to do something I’ve just been too chicken to try. A while ago I decided to skydive. I had gotten a pilot’s license (small single-engine planes) while I was living in Kenya. But I when skydiving came up, I would assert that I saw “no reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.”

Truth is I have a terror of falling and was sure I wouldn’t even make it out of the plane, much less survive the actual skydive (I’m not the most graceful or athletic). But one day a friend was talking about her skydiving experience and I found myself wondering if I dared.1916437_1190578448020_6490572_n

Before I could talk myself out of it, I called a small skydiving company in South Miami and booked myself a dive (tandem, of course).

I decided to make the trip down alone just in case I chickened out or made a total ass of myself. It was a perfect morning — bright blue sky, not too hot, not too cold.

As I crawled in the small, rickety, old plane that was piloted by a young man who I doubted was out of high school, I figured I had a better chance of dying from the plane falling apart than from the dive.

1916437_1190578488021_2487389_nWhen I got over the shock of flying with an open side door (I was sitting right next to it), the hard part turned out to be getting my legs to swing out in preparation for the drop. My head kept saying move, the legs were adamant that they wanted to stay right where they were. But eventually we were all set. 1916437_1190578688026_5500300_n (1)

Then my instructor and I were out the door free falling. What a sensation.

After a minute or so the chute opened. And we drifted peacefully over open countryside. There was no sound, no distraction, no fear. Just gentle rocking.


I had worried about the landing. But my instructor guided us in so carefully I barely felt my butt meet the ground.

The result: An amazing experience, truly the thrill of a lifetime.

I am addicted to traveling. I admit it. I jump at the chance to take a road trip. I yearn to revisit old haunts or set off on new adventures. I love big cities, untamed wilderness, dry deserts and frozen tundra.  

Of course these days the act of traveling — of getting from point A to point B — is often an exercise in endurance and superhuman patience. And I have been known to sit in an airport and swear I’ll never travel again.

But I could never give up marveling as I watch men haggle over a squirming sheep —  “See the thick hair.” “Ah, but look at the poor teeth.” Acting out a scene that hasn’t changed in hundreds, maybe thousands of years, except for that cell phone the buyer is using to check in with his boss.

I have too much fun losing myself in the mazes of souks and bazaars. Where spicy aromas and brilliant colors mix with electrical supplies, dishwashing liquid and paper goods.

And I get such joy catching a glimpse of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket as I drive through the south (really how great a name is that).

Traveling reminds me just how enchanting what others consider mundane can be. And conversely how exciting my everyday life may seem to others.

And that helps me appreciate my life just a bit more, even when I’m not traveling.


Pushing to Finish

Writing my first novel has been and continues to be a great adventure. One that excites, frustrates and challenges me.

I am now on my fifth major re-write (adding and deleting story elements) and am hopeful I can move to the copy/line editing mode soon.

When I started this journey I had no idea what I was really getting into. Oh, I had read about the query process, the need to be willing to promote your book, etc. etc. But these seemed like minor issues compared to actually getting the book written.

Now I see how rose-colored my glasses were. But instead of finding this complex process of taking my work from finished manuscript (assuming I actually ever finish editing) to published book intimidating or onerous, I’m actually a bit psyched. Who would have thought.

I like to think one reason for my unexpected reaction is that my father was a salesman (a good one at that), so those paternal genes are kicking in. Or maybe finding a strategy for selling, marketing and getting my work out there has reignited my problem-solving engine.

In any case, I’m now immersed in developing my blog, learning about queries and synopses, and developing my pitch. I even participated in my first pitch session (utterly terrifying, but exhilarating, too).

Of course, I continue to write, and edit, and write, and edit. Hopefully soon I’ll take all I’ve learned about queries, synopses, etc and actually send the manuscript out. Now there’s a terrifying thought. Keep your fingers crossed.

The temperature is in the upper nineties here in Miami, the air thick with tropical humidity.
So today I dream of far off lands: Antarctica, the Lemaire Channel. P1000299

Excuse Me While I Estivate

Miami is having a very hot summer. I know, I know, we always have hot summers. But this year seems particularly brutal. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been focusing on walking my dogs at least two miles a day, outside, in the heat.
This got me thinking about the fact that if you can hibernate in winter to survive the worst of the cold, you should be able to do the something similar in summer to escape the heat.

This random thought must have triggered waves out into the universe because — swear this is true — not two days later I’m doing the NY Times crossword and the clue was “Stay inactive over the summer”. Bingo. Answer was “Estivate.”

Perfect, now I can respond to those mad dogs and Englishmen who want to bike, hike, swim, rollerblade, or simply run around in the summer sun.
“Excuse me but I’m estivating. Call me in the fall and we’ll see.” (By then I’ll come up with some new excuses.)
Lena 1Charlie 1
Now if I could only convince my dogs to do the same.

One reason I love travel is that it not only exposes me to the rich tapestry of different cultures and their unique approaches to life, beauty, time, etc., but it also reminds me of how much we share. And not all of what we share is the good stuff.

It is extremely embarrassing to me that despite all the time I spent living and working in Taiwan, traveling in Japan and mainland China, studying spoken Chinese, I still find it very difficult to distinguish between not only different individual Chinese (unless I know them well), but the various ethnic groups as well.

But during my tenure in Taiwan I learned that this failing is not, as I assumed, a simple reflection of my Euro-centricity, but that Chinese suffer from a similar issue when distinguishing between those of us of European origin.

My boss in Taiwan was married to a Swiss-American. She and I were similar in height and weight. But I at the time had dark auburn hair and a ruddy complexion with freckles. My boss’ wife had porcelain white skin and pale blond hair. To our Western colleagues we were very distinct. But after two years and multiple meetings — both official and social — the mayor of the city where I served could not tell the difference between us.

Towards the end of my stay, I commented on this fact to my assistant, someone whom I saw daily. “You’d think he’d at least notice we have different color hair.” I said.

Now here’s the kicker. “You do?” She answered.

That’s when I realized that Westerners filter certain characteristics when they look at someone. We automatically consider hair color, skin color, eye color. We then move on to type of hair — straight or curly, and other distinguishing features. Chinese use othere differences: shape of face, width of cheeks, and other facial structures. After all, there’s no point in noticing hair color — always black, eye color — always dark, type of hair — always straight. Similarly we generally won’t notice shape of face, width of cheeks, etc.

Not sure what the lesson in all this is, but I’ve learned to be less judgmental of myself (and others) in this regard and to humbly realize that I’m only as individual as the person looking at me notices.