The BIG Event

I knew I would over prepare because that’s just me. I had no idea who would show up — could be a lot of people, could be no one, who could say? So there were four dozen of every cookie, cups for sixty people, napkins and plates and and and and. A slide show and a poster and books to put in inventory, door prizes — everything just in case the ENTIRE CITY OF ALAMOSA showed up. I didn’t want that, didn’t expect it, but I was ready…

A handful of people — all of whom were my friends — showed up. It took longer to set up than we planned — the better part of an hour. Logistics and electricity and no one wanted to abandon any part of this extravaganza for the sake of expedience. So…

I read and my reading was the best part, I think for everyone.

Except maybe for the cookies. No one can compete with cookies and then EVERYONE won a prize and took home a box of sticky rice candy, known in Japanese as Mochi in China, as far as I know, as “sticky rice.”

SO all my anxiety and stress was spent so that I could learn that I am able to go to a bookstore and read stories to my friends who listened with rapt attention to the story I told.

I honestly can’t think of a better outcome. And, if I ever do this again, I will know how, I’ll have the resources and the encouraging memory of a very sweet experience.

And, I sold a book. ❤

P.S. Thank you for all the moral support leading up to this. It reminded me how much this is more than just a blogging platform. In a way, it’s a neighborhood that extends around the world. In a way, we meet here to chat over coffee, or tea, or whatever and learn interesting things about each other, share ideas, advice, help, visions of life, photos and stories of our travels. It’s very special.

Red Paper

One of the days I was in China we rode our bikes to the (then small and pretty) town of Sha Hu  (沙湖 Sand Lake) which was a little north and some other direction of our university. I don’t know for sure what time of year it was, but I suspect it was around New Years because there were many street artists or street calligraphers writing big black characters on sheets of thin paper that had been painted red. After the paper was painted red, bits of gold paint had been splattered on the surface. It was BEAUTIFUL. I watched the artists work for a while, enchanted by all of it.

Example… I don’t know what this says 😦

Then I came back to Denver and tried to adjust to the weirdness of a bad marriage, a brother in trouble, and a place I didn’t want to be. My ex gave me a big, red toolbox for my art supplies. I decided to splatter it with gold paint and asked my brother if I could borrow his gold spray paint (he did air-brush type paintings with spray paint in the trunk of the car my ex had given him). Instead of saying “Yes” or “No” he began arguing artistic theory with me. Polemical people are prone to not listening and he wasn’t listening when I said, “They do it in China. It’s beautiful.”

“China, China, China, I’m sick of hearing about China. Red and gold don’t go together.”

Since I was feeding and housing him, I didn’t think this was really “the thing.” It wasn’t something to argue anyway, but my brother had a way of just getting in your face when he wanted to prove a point, especially if he had been drinking. I didn’t know (because he’d promised NOT to drink while he lived with us) that he was drinking secretly. Finally I just went out the back door, got into my car, and headed down the alley.

Before long, a dark form jumped out of the bushes onto the hood of my car and clung to the windshield. Think about that. Clinging to glass is no small feat. I stopped, hoping he’d be knocked off, but if my brother had a point to prove, he was relentless. He opened the passenger door and got in.

“I’m sorry Martha Ann. It’s your toolbox.”

“Whatever. It doesn’t really matter to you what I do with it, does it?”

“No. I’m sorry. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to get away from you.”

“I’m sorry.”

I didn’t want to go home, besides, there was no way to turn around in the alley. I thought, “OK, so now I’m trapped in a small space with a firecracker. Let the party begin,” but it turned out well. We drove out of town, up to Lookout Mountain west of Golden. I am sure we did some looking out. We ended up talking and laughing and being sister and brother together.

Yesterday I began working on the Sistine Poster for the Baby Duck book launch. The big thing was the RIGHT background. It had to cover the foam core — 36 x 24 a kind of slick white that sucks light and energy out of any room it’s in. It BEGS to be behind something as it should. That’s its purpose though now it can be bought in various colors. I bought red tissue paper when I went to the store figuring “This’ll work somewhere.” When I got home from a short shopping trip (and the longest walk I’ve taken since I surrendered to the injury) I saw exactly what should happen.

I scored the foam core down the middle so I could fold it, enabling it to stand up.

I spray glued the surface of the foam core and spread the tissue paper on the surface. I didn’t try to make it perfectly smooth. It seemed that a little texture would be a good thing. After all, in China, these sheets of red paper were glued to doors and door jams and were NEVER smooth. Once both sides of the foam core were covered, I thought, “What now?”

It was clear. But HOW???? I hoped I had the little bottle of gold ink I thought I bought sometime, and maybe did, but no longer have. I have sheets of gold leaf, but you can’t splatter sheets of gold leaf. I have a tube of Gamblin’s Rich Gold oil paint but that seemed, seemed, seemed what? All I had to do was thin that down and splatter it from a brush just as I’d seen done by the street artists of Sha Hu.

Oil paint? I was doubtful, but it was my only option. I wasn’t sure if if the paint would dry overnight, or two days, or what, thinned though it was. I wouldn’t even know until morning how it looked since there’s no real light in my studio other than sunlight. But it was my moment and I took it. When I was done, my face, hair, hands, jeans, sweatshirt and glasses were covered with gold flecks. I felt so happy as I worked even though…

The whole time I worked, I thought of my brother.

Speaking of forgetful — I posted this thing without the pingback. 🙂

Baby Duck Update

It looks like the As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder book launch is going to happen. It’s going to be cookies and tea, a small raffle and talk, and a 10 minute slide show running in a loop at a separate table. The event will probably be only an hour long, maybe a little more if people want to hang around. I’ll be holding it at the local independent bookstore, The Narrow Gauge Bookstore (which is a coop) in Alamosa. It’s a really charming old-school store that I like very much though I don’t shop there because it’s 20 miles away, and I’m no one’s market at this point in my life, I’m afraid.

I have had a LOT of fun putting the slide show together! Yesterday on Facebook I asked for comments regarding what people would like to see at the launch and got a lot of good help from that.

It’s going to be about 10 minutes long and self-narrating as the slides have captions. I don’t want to reveal everything that’s in the book and I don’t want to put anyone through those grueling slide shows I remember as a child. I see the slide show more as a teaser, you know, “Whoa these are cool, so what’s the story???”

By the way, if you’ve read Baby Duck and would care to leave a short review, it would be very helpful to me as part of this event will be a little sheet about the book and what readers have thought. So far three people have said anything — a reader reviewed it on Facebook. My thesis advisor reviewed it in a letter. A reader in India reviewed it on Amazon India. I am very grateful to anyone who takes a few minutes to write something. Reviews help me sell books and ultimately help the little bookstore stay in business. 🙂

To leave a review on Amazon just go there and search “As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder.” Then scroll down to the end of the page to “Leave a Review”. This link should work.

To leave a review on Facebook, just go to Baby Duck’s page and click, “Leave a Review” This should be the link to that location.

To leave a review on Goodreads, here’s a link.


One difference between adulthood and childhood is a pebble. Here’s what I mean. Sometime in second or third grade a teacher told us that if we were stuck in the desert with no water, we could temporarily quench our thirst by putting a pebble in our mouth to stimulate the flow of saliva.

Man, I wanted to get stuck in the desert so I could find out if it worked.

Now I know too much to be eager for the adventure. I know that dehydration would soon put the kibosh the possibility of EVER gathering saliva in my mouth, and being stuck in the desert would be awful in more ways than thirst. A little knowledge is a drag…

On the other hand, I seldom get pebbles in my shoes, and when I was a kid, it was a constant problem. It’s been at least 57 years since (thank goodness) I had to go to the doc to have embedded pebbles cleaned out of my scraped knees. The worst pebbles were the solitary pebbles of a slightly (but not much) larger size that I stepped on barefoot or landed on in a bike crash.

It seems as we grow up, the pebbles become more metaphorical and less actual.

My “pebble” today is a lot like that pebble that would save the little girl from thirst in the desert. I’m taking ALL the books to the bookstore/coop in Alamosa to see if they will stock them. I’m also going to see what’s involved in setting up a book launch party for As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. Nothing big, just an hour, me ready to sign books, do a short reading, a small giveaway, and pass out cookies. I’m writing a press release for Baby Duck, too.

I hate doing this stuff. I feel totally exposed and absurdly vulnerable when I “peddle my papers.”

I sent As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder to my thesis advisor, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr., because he had so much to do with my going to China. He recently sent me a letter telling me how my book affected him. I’ve received letters that thrilled my soul and warmed my heart, but none more than his.

He had visited China in the winter of 1980 (maybe 1979) and he found it unutterably depressing and named it “Dicken’s China.” He didn’t understand why I wanted to go, but he supported my adventure once he saw I was determined. After I got there, and wrote him, he decided to come himself and the summer of 1983 he and his wife went to Chengdu in Sichuan to teach for 6 months. Anyway, my book awakened sleeping memories and touched him deeply.

I don’t think I can ask for more. He wrote, “Your lovely book opened all the floodgates. You have written the best account of being a foreign teacher in China I know.”

So, as much as this pebble hurts, I owe it to my books to make a little effort on their behalf.

Butterflies or Memories?

In 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a whole town dies from nostalgia. For some reason, I took that as a warning. He (as I remember, and I read it a long time ago) made some beautiful metaphors for nostalgia, too. In one, which remains very vivid in my mind, a very old woman opens a chest which holds her wedding dress and there is nothing inside but butterflies. This kind of writing has been labeled as “magical realism,” — a phrase I don’t completely understand. I understood the chest to be the woman’s mind and the butterflies representative of her youth, young love, hopes and dreams. To me the whole episode was totally realistic.

The definition for magic realism in Wikipedia (where I went for the link above) is, itself, a little problematic for me. ‘Magical realism’…often refers to fiction and literature in particular with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.” It’s not my favorite genre. Too easily manipulated (now it’s been labeled).

And, I wonder, how much do we know about reality — or mundanity — that we can possibly enhance it with (or eliminate the possibility of) “magic” or the supernatural? Whether it’s explainable by science or not, a crocus pushing its head through the snow in February is pretty magical, the stars at night have always been objects of wonder, dread and “supernatural” navigation help, and snow? After plowing (metaphorically) through the after-effects of June’s small flood at my slough — the leavings of my winter’s miraculous snow — I couldn’t help be amazed even as I swatted mosquitoes and perspired. I thought, “This is all my beautiful snow!” Hay farmers are getting 3 cuttings this year, thanks to that miracle of white. Nature, the source of all real magic. And no, it’s not all “good” from a human perspective.

Reality is pretty magical.

Still, alerted to the dangers of nostalgia, I tried to be careful writing the China book not to allow my nostalgia to color the experience too brightly. Nostalgia does cause a spectrum shift. I hope I succeeded in conveying the beauty I perceived and the love I felt without dipping the whole experience in butterflies.

What I Didn’t Write in the China Book

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.

Taxi of My Dreams

Taxis were a big part of my life in China. Many of them (always cruising foreigner hotels) were Mercedes, a few Toyotas, including vans, but there was one taxi…

Maybe everyone has a “dream car.” Mine was the Citroën DS. I thought it was incredibly beautiful and I loved the idea that it lifted itself up on air. My dream came true in front of the Baiyun Hotel/Friendship Store one afternoon. The ONE Citroën taxi pulled up to give us a ride.

Rural roads in China at the time were rough. Even city streets had sections of construction where the road basically disappeared in a road bed that was not paved, exactly. Riding the six miles out to our university in that car was like riding in a cloud.

China was like that. Mysteriously, out of nowhere, one of my dreams would emerge from the humidity and rain. There was the car, there was Sleeping Beauty, the ballet, performed by the Royal Ballet, there was China itself.

I finished the China book, printed proofs, and spent the last three days going through the proof. My editor will go through a copy of it, too. It was a pleasure reading it in book form, though I made a lot of changes, mostly stylistic ones which was kind of encouraging. I just found a few typos. I’m still shooting for a release date of July 15, but we’ll see if that “comes true.”

I don’t know what I can write now that will be nearly as absorbing or satisfying. I loved every minute of working on that project.


Among the “ephemera” through which I looked in writing the China book was a map of Guangzhou that had been a placemat. It’s definitely my favorite bit of paper from all that “self-archeology.”

Here it is.

Placemat map of Guangzhou, 1982

What makes it so wonderful to me is that I sent it to my mom and had the thought of marking it up so she could see all the places we went. On the bottom right facing you’ll see I’ve written “Coors did not provide this placemat.”

In many of the restaurants in Colorado back in the day (for decades of the day) paper placemats were sponsored by Coors.

Common placemat in cafes and diners in Colorado back in the day… This one (found on eBay) is from the 1950s. There is no I-25 (Interstate 25). Instead old 85/87 runs from Denver to New Mexico. ❤

I have no idea if my mom found this half as funny as I did…