Passport Evolution

I recently began writing an essay for which I wanted to look at my first passport. I readily found my current passport and the other most recent ones (I keep them in a secure spot in the house), but I had a notion that the really old one was in a box in the basement. Happily, I didn’t have to look too long, and I was rewarded by finding not one but two old passports.

I apparently got my first passport in October of 1973. I was 19, a junior in college, and I wonder where I thought I was going? The address listed on the passport is my parents’ home in Indianapolis, even though I was living in Evanston, Illinois. Because of passport number 2, discussed below, I didn’t actually use this passport until I arrived in Taiwan (Republic of China) in December 1977, having completed my Peace Corps service in Korea that month. My backpacking trip on the long way home from Korea took me first to Taiwan, then Hong Kong, China (and because I had the ROC visa stamped in my passport, the PRC visa is on a separate slip of paper, which I still have), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Poland (I got a cheap flight from Bangkok to New York on Lot Polish Airlines that included a brief visit to Warsaw).

My second passport was a “No-fee Passport” I received when I joined the Peace Corps, a document that showed I worked for the US Government and, I guess, afforded me special privileges, although I have no idea what those might have been. The issue date is November 1975 and the stamp in it shows that I arrived in Seoul on January 10, 1976, made one trip out of Korea—to Japan, in January of 1977 during my Winter break from teaching—and left Korea for good in December of 1977.

Both of my passports then expired in 1978, which wasn’t a problem because I was deep into graduate school and had no travel plans. But at about the time I graduated from law school in 1981, I must have thought my travelling days were about to return because I got a new passport in August of that year. It wasn’t until 1983 that I put the passport to use, however: I spent two weeks in Paris that year, for my first European vacation. I was 29. And then the travel got serious. With this passport, I arrived in Singapore on the last day of December 1983 (for tax planning purposes, to prove expatriate status for 1984) where I was taking a job in my law firm’s office there. It’s difficult to track individual trips, but this passport, which had extra pages added at some point, includes stamps for Thailand, Japan, England, Hong Kong, Brunei, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cyprus, Dubai, Denmark, Korea, and, of course, Singapore. (I think I also travelled to Italy, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden on this passport, but Europe isn’t consistent with their stamps.)

When that passport expired in 1986, I got a new one. I was still living in Singapore at the time, and this passport includes the following stamps: Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Bangladesh, Portugal, Singapore, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Nepal, Taiwan, and a visa for Burma, although I didn’t actually get to use it. In 1991 (by this time, passports were good for ten years instead of five), more pages were added with stamps of many of the foregoing countries plus Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1993 I returned to the US for a year of graduate school, and then with a different job my stamps moved to a different part of the world: Kazakhstan. (I made several trips back and forth to Almaty that year, transiting in Frankfurt, and there is one German stamp.)

My next passport was issued in October of 1995 as the previous one was near its expiration. I recall that I was living in Washington DC and anticipating doing more consulting work in Central Asia, and I also came quite close to taking a job back in Singapore. But in January of 1996 I began working for the World Bank in Washington and again my stamps reflected my work in Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam. I got pages added in 1999 and more stamps from all of those countries.

But in 1996 I also got my first Laissez-Passer, the United Nations passport, because the World Bank is considered part of the UN system, and for work-related travel most of my visas and stamps appeared in that document: Indonesia, Vietnam, China, and South Korea, the countries I visited most for my work.



The LPs were only issued for 2 years, so in 1998 I got a second one: Korea, Vietnam, China, and a new country for me, Lao PDR, which I visited once, in January 2001, shortly before I left the World Bank (the LP was renewed in 2000 and continued to be valid).

After I left the World Bank as a staff member, I continued to work and travel for them as a consultant, and I went back to using my 1995 US passport. I recall that I was preparing for a trip to Asia in early 2002 when disaster struck—the passport got lost! My standard procedure was to send my passport to my assistant at the Bank who would get it to the travel office to arrange for the necessary visas. So, well in advance of the upcoming trip, I mailed it to her. But this was during the anthrax scare, and I didn’t realize that all mail to the bank was being routed to a facility for testing or radiation or something. My passport didn’t arrive, so on an emergency basis, I applied for an expedited passport for which I had to go up to the passport office in Washington. (The missing passport turned up many years later, was canceled, and is now part of my collection.)

So, my replacement passport was issued in January 2002 and on it, I traveled to Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and China. In 2004 pages were added but the only stamps on the new pages were for several more trips to China. (They usually only gave me a single-entry visa, which takes up a whole page.) I also went to Mexico several times with this passport, but apparently earned no stamps.

With my latest passport due to expire in January of 2012 and two trips on the docket for the year prior (taking me into that period prior to expiration—6 months usually—where countries won’t issue visas or allow entry), I got a new passport in March of 2011. I visited Korea and France that year (although my port of entry to Europe was Germany, so that’s what my arrival stamp says). And the last stamps in this passport are Singapore and Indonesia, where I visited in 2017, although I’ll be putting the passport to use later this year.

All of which has little to do with the essay that prompted the search for the old passports. More on that later.


pensées pour un samedi pluvieux

1. At a little after 3:00 am this morning, I awoke when I heard the various beeps that accompany a power outage: the CO detector, the power backup for the computer, etc. Frequently, the power comes back on in seconds and all that needs to be done is reset the clock on the microwave. But the power stayed off and the UPS continued to beep. It was annoying, but the UPS is in the office upstairs and I didn’t feel like getting up to deal with it. Plus, I was curious about how long the UPS battery would last. I did get out of bed long enough to get my tablet, and I logged on to the power company’s website to report the outage (fortunately, my modem is powered by the UPS, so I still had WiFi). I learned that about 350 households were affected by the outage. Nothing to do then but try to get back to sleep. Beep. Beep. Beep. (The UPS gave up after about 2 hours.) At 7:00 am, new beeps signaled the restoration of power. I got up to face the day, which promised to be rainy and gloomy.

2. Today is the Royal Wedding, about which I care not. I do like Meghan Markle, however. I have watched the show she’s on, Suits, on Amazon Prime, and I like it very much (mostly because of the law firm setting that brings back memories). She’s talented and beautiful. Also, she went to my alma mater, Northwestern, so there’s that. And she seems to be shaking up the royal family in several ways, which is all to the good. I hope they’re very happy.

3. The title of this blog post is in French because I’ve been doing daily French study in preparation for a five-week stay in France later in the year. I’ve been to France before and spoke very little French, but because this is a longer trip I thought I should make the effort. Also, it’s fun. I’m using Duolingo plus an online flashcard-based vocabulary builder, and I’ve started meeting weekly with a friend to practice speaking. We meet at the French bakery in town and I’m tempted to order in French–Donnez-moi un croissant et un cafe noir, s’il vous plait–but they’d probably think I was nuts.

4. The New York Times is offering tips for decluttering, which are mostly what you’d expect but because they are spaced out over a few weeks, it seems to be really helpful. So far I’ve only decluttered my bathroom, but the bedroom is next. That’s a much larger challenge.

5. I’m reading several books, and I plan to spend part of this rainy day with a couple of them. On the one hand, I feel like I should be cleaning or fixing or cooking or something, but . . . books!

6. Last night I went to the American Shakespeare Center to see Sense and Sensibility again. The play is an adaptation by Emma Whipday of Jane Austen’s novel, performed by the ASC’s touring company, which is in residence for the Spring season. All four of their productions are excellent and this one is especially good. The theater was nearly full–on the first level, anyway–which is a pretty regular occurrence these days.

7. I’m unlikely to get any writing done this weekend, other than this blog post, but I’m about to launch into a revision of a novel that I once thought was done. I recently received some very thoughtful comments from an editor and so I believe I know what needs to be done with this manuscript, which is exciting. I wish I could hide away for a couple of months to really focus on this project, but that isn’t possible. I do hope to stay off social media–during the day, at least–to give myself the best shot at finishing my revisions by the end of the summer.

Tips for Writers: The Author as Optometrist

One of the hallmarks of great literary fiction is its attention to character. Every story needs a plot, of course, and a setting, but even the most exciting story set in an exotic location will lose the reader if the characters are not compelling. Writers sometimes take their characters for granted, however. Aren’t they just people, after all? And aren’t we all people ourselves? How hard can it be?

In a seminar I taught this past weekend at WriterHouse in Charlottesville (which, by the way, is a great place to find writing guidance or a community of writers, or both) we explored various techniques for creating memorable characters in fiction. We looked at examples from classic and contemporary fiction and considered what seems to work well. We discussed whether characters need to be likable or relatable, as some critics have said. We talked about the special challenges of writing about characters outside of our own experience—a different gender, race, culture, age, sexual preferences.

And we talked about the author as optometrist.

Say what?

I suggested that it’s important to remember that there’s a distinction between the character the author has created and the perception that other characters and the reader have of that character.

The foundation of creating great characters is learning to know them even better than we know ourselves. There are the obvious physical characteristics we need to be aware of in order to show them to the reader: height, weight, hair and eye color, tattoos, race. But characters are much more than their outward appearance. What are the character’s religious beliefs? Is she a regular church-goer? A non-traditional seeker of spiritual growth? What is her temperament? Does she have an anger-management problem? A personality disorder? Is she taking medication to control it? What is her level of education? Is she using her education and, if not, is that frustrating? Does she have a career? Or just a job? Or not? What’s her family life like? Politics? Taste in music? Film? Literature? Who’s her best friend? In whom does she confide when things get dicey (as they must)? What car does she drive? What car would she like to drive? Sexual turn-ons and turn-offs? What does she regret?

The character profile thus generated will prepare the writer to present as part of the story authentic responses to any situation that arises. How will your character react if she is confronted by a professional rival? Or a mugger? What will she do if her efforts to get a job are frustrated? What will she do if she suspects her husband of cheating on her? Or if her son is arrested? Not all of the details from the profile will appear in the work explicitly—just as much historical research will be left out for the sake of concision—but the total profile will inform the writing. The better the writer knows who the character is, the more credible she’ll seem on the page.

But perception of the character thus created is a separate issue. The author/narrator is like an optometrist in this regard, placing a filtering lens between the reader and the character. The lens can sharpen the image or it can distort. In many cases, the image will be blurry at first, but gradually come into focus as the filters gradually fall away.

Book Reviewing

When I talk to writers about being a good literary citizen, one of the things I recommend is writing book reviews. It not only helps to keep one’s critical skills sharp–useful in evaluating your own work–but also it spreads the word about books by other writers, and that’s a good thing for the literary community. Although venues for book reviews in print are disappearing, the online book review world continues to expand, so there are lots of places to publish reviews, and there’s nothing wrong with posting reviews on your own blog if you don’t want to go to the trouble to place it elsewhere.

There is no single formula for “how to write a book review.” In graduate school, I did take a class on book reviewing, and I’ve been more or less following the process I learned there when I write reviews, but I’ve read all kinds of reviews over the years. Trust me. There are lots of ways to skin a book, and I highly recommend reading other reviews to get a sense of the variety.

The real reason I’m writing this post, though, is that I just updated the Publications page on my website and added all (or most–I may have overlooked a few) of the reviews I’ve published over the past few years. I surprised myself at how many there were (and why the heck wasn’t I updating the list all along?). Recent venues include Washington Independent Review of Books, Peace Corps Worldwide, and Best New Fiction.

If you’re interested in a [semi-]complete list of my reviews, with links where available, check out my Publications page and scroll down to Essays and Reviews.

The Writer in Public — May 2018

Writing is usually a solitary occupation, although I do frequently spend time with my laptop and my thoughts at coffeeshops. Still, there are occasions when we can be seen in public and for me a few of those moments are coming up.

First, tonight (May 9) is our community’s monthly open mic night for writers of poetry and prose. SWAG Writers–the Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta Group of Writers, a subchapter of the Virginia Writers Club’s Blue Ridge Chapter–hosts this event on the second Wednesday of every month. We’ve been doing it for many years and for the last few years, our partner and host has been Black Swan Books & Music. It’s always entertaining. Last month we had 18 readers, each of whom signed up for a 5-minute slot to share their work. Free and open to the public. 6:00 pm.

Next, on Saturday I’m leading a half-day seminar at WriterHouse in Charlottesville: Care and Feeding of Compelling Characters. Characters are an important part of any narrative, of course, so we’ll talk in this class about what makes characters interesting and memorable. I hope the students get something out of it; I certainly did as I was preparing for it.

Then, next week, on Thursday, May 17, I’ll be participating in the Augusta County Library’s first Local Author Expo, a casual event where readers can meet a few local authors, chat about their work, and maybe buy a book. I know most of the other writers who will be there, so it should be fun.

I think that’s it for public appearances for this month.

Checking in on my writing goals for the year

I realized this morning that the year is one-third gone already, which led me to consider how I was doing with the ambitious writing goals I’d set for myself.

  1. Novel edits. I have a novel coming out in early 2019, so an important writing goal for the year is to deal with edits I get from the publisher. I haven’t received the edits yet, so that’s still on the list.
  2. Compile Anthology. Done! Ahead of schedule, I finished selecting the twenty stories for Volume III of Everywhere Stories. I also got the editing done and compiled the manuscript, sending it off to the publisher last week. There is more work to be done—proofreading being the most challenging task ahead—before the book comes out in the fall, but this project is under control.
  3. Find a publisher for my novel. Um, no. Change of plans. Although I had some interest in this book from small presses, I decided that what it really needed was a developmental edit. That is underway, with comments due soon. I will then revise the manuscript and then start the process again.
  4. Finish the new story collection. Done! I was fortunate enough to get a short residency in February and used that time to finish a few new stories and compile the collection. It’s now being considered by a publisher and if that doesn’t work out I will send it to some other small presses.
  5. Finish the new novel. I had actually hoped to finish the new novel this summer, but that looks unlikely. Instead, I will aim to finish during a long residency I have scheduled this fall.
  6. Query agents. I still plan to do that this fall, but it won’t be for the new novel as I’d intended. Instead, I’ll query for the earlier novel, if I finish revisions by the end of the summer as I hope to do.

So, a third of the way into the year, I’m doing pretty well, I think. I even added a goal, which was to send out some of the new stories to magazines. I’ve had one acceptance so far, and hope to have others as the year progresses. Stay tuned!