Friday, July 27, 2012

It Wasn't Writer's Block After All

English: Trying to illustrate the concept of n...
English: Trying to illustrate the concept of no bureaucracy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a goal of writing 1,000 words per day, but for the past week the well has run dry.  It’s not, mind you, traditional writer’s block; I currently have three book length projects working, and I know precisely where I want to go with each of them; what I want the characters to do, how they will change and develop in the course of the story, and, of course, enough plot twists hopefully to keep readers turning the page.  Yet, until I started this piece, I haven’t felt like writing.

I didn’t stop thinking, fortunately.  My mind works that way.  I’m always analyzing myself and others, trying to puzzle out why we do the things we do.  So, naturally, my mind has been working feverishly in the background on the issue of my not wanting to write as I usually do.

Finally, this morning as I was hacking my way around a golf course – my only outside activity other than photography – it hit me.  Right after hitting out of a bunker and leaving the ball hanging over the cup; one of those events that keep you going back again and again; instead of exulting in almost making a birdie, I realized why I was loathe to try something as creative as manipulating my characters through yet another of their unending adventures.  It had nothing to do with writing, and at the same time, everything.

I’ve been wrestling for years with being in a bureaucracy in my day job, and not ever feeling like I was an integral part of the traditional processes of bureaucracy.  As I prepare to end that phase of my life, after over fifty years of plying my trade, I’ve been thinking about what it’s been like being a square peg in a round hole for so long.  My mind has been going around in ever tighter circles as I’ve tried to understand what kept me at it so long; going wherever I was told to go, doing whatever job that was assigned, even at times when I didn’t totally believe in what I was doing.  Was it for the money?  Not likely.  An honest bureaucrat, and I like to think of myself as an honest person, will never get rich.  Was it the fame and notoriety?  What a laugh!  Bureaucrats, especially government workers, are the butt of many late night comedians’ jokes and the favorite target of politicians looking to score points in election campaigns.  The only time they get extensive media attention is when they mess up.

So, why did a farm boy from East Texas who just wanted to explore the world beyond the pine tree-covered red clay keep at it so long; and, why was he just thinking about it in the closing days of that long journey?  Worse; why was this mental exercise interfering with the one true love of his life, creating imaginary worlds to entertain the few readers he has managed over the years to accumulate?

In my case, as I realized during the few milliseconds it took to tap in that par putt, it really had more to do with a desire to do something meaningful than with just exploring the world.  I realized at that moment that, despite the fact that the bureaucracy can sometimes seem like a soulless entity with no feelings for humans at all, the times when I’ve been able to actually make a difference in someone’s life, and only those directly affected even knew about it, were what it was all about.  When I look at the balance sheet, the bureaucratic battles that have left me frustrated and angry at times are outweighed by the incidents when my actions have brought comfort to some individual who needed comforting; when I was able to circumvent the normal bureaucratic red tape to get something done when others were using rules and regulations to thwart it.  That brief moment of gratitude from a citizen, often forgotten before the sun rises the next day, have made it all worth it; so the well wasn’t dry after all; just a momentary blockage that needed the patient application of a little plumber’s helper to remove. 

So, it wasn’t actually writer’s block at all; just a brief period when my brain had to deal with another issue.  Now that it’s out of the way, all I can say is look out world, here I come again.

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Charles Ray is a writer of a number of works of fiction, including the popular Al Pennyback mystery series, and is a featured travel writer for Yahoo! Voices. He is also Diplomatic Editor for Asnycnow Radio.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Never Get Between a Hippo and Water

Marine Sergeant Justin Trinidad, on vacation in Zimbabwe a few years back, saved the life of a tourist who made the mistake of being between a hippo and where it wanted to be.  This is a video reenactment, but it's as spine-chilling as the real thing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Try Hawaii for the Poi-fect Vacation

A Reader's Review of "Till Death do Us Part"

Authors always want to get feedback on their work.  It's especially welcome when it's unsolicited.  A reader from Long Island, New York recently had this to say about my newest Al Pennyback mystery, Till Death Do Us Part.

This book reads like a T.V. episode of a crime/adventure show. The author developed his plot slowly and effectively. His characters were interesting and well defined. It was a good read.
Cat Mom - LI, NY

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zimbabwe's Matobo Hills - A Giant's Playground

Angel Thunder 2011

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen and a simulated “...
U.S. Air Force pararescuemen and a simulated “survivor” watch as an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter comes in for a landing here recently. The multiservice, multinational training exercise prepares combat search and rescue teams to extract downed personnel in a variety of environments and situations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In October 2011 I had the opportunity to participate in the U.S. Air Force's Angel Thunder personnel recovery exercise in ArizonaOutside Magazine did a fantastic article which is carried on the That Others Might Live (TOML) Web site. Read more . . .

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My First Golfing Experience: They call it golf because all the other curse words were taken

Friday, July 13, 2012

Love of Reading Links US and Zimbabwe

Read this blog about the establishment of a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle group in Zimbabwe.  The brainchild of U.S. Embassy Harare's Public Affairs Counselor, Sharon Hudson-Dean, this activity not only links the US and Zimbabwe, but has created a forum where Zimbabweans can share ideas.  More here . . .

"Till Death do Us Part" Free July 16-20

iPad KIndle App Home Screen
iPad KIndle App Home Screen (Photo credit: bump)
Get "Till Death do Us Part" free for you Kindle or Kindle App July 16-20 only!
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Till Death Do Us Part" now available.

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon
My latest Al Pennyback mystery, Till Death Do Us Part, is now available in paperback. If you liked the two sample chapters, you'll want to read the rest.  It will also be available for Kindle and Kindle apps soon, so stay tuned.  The link to get the paperback is:  It will be here in my store soon, as well at most book retailers in the US, UK, and Europe.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sassafras Tea: Bad for Lab Rats, But it Can be Good for Humans - sometimes.

When I was a kid growing up, we drank sassafras tea fairly often.  A study in the 1960s found that one of the components in the tea caused cancer in lab rats, so the FDA banned its commercial use.  Too bad, really, since that what root beer used to be made from.  Want to know more?  Read here . . .

Mother Earth's Gurgling Innards

If you thought the earth was a stable ball of rock except for the occasional volcano or earthquake, you're mistaken.  Read more here . . .

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Farewell to the People of Zimbabwe

The following op-ed, with a summary of my July 4th reception remarks, was run in the government's state-run newspaper today:  Read more . . .

This isn’t goodbye, even as I leave PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 05 July 2012 11:52

Yesterday, we celebrated American Independence Day — the most important, uniquely American holiday on our calendar. Americans are very patriotic. Whether we are newly-minted Americans who immigrated last year or our forebears arrived on the Mayflower or the Amistad, all of us have a strong belief in the concept and best values of the United States.

Through our long and sometimes turbulent history as the world’s first modern constitutional democracy, Americans as a people have continuously pushed — internally and externally — for what we believe to be the best of human society: justice, fairness, education, innovation and well-being for all.
It has not always been a clear or easy path, and we don’t always meet our own or others’ expectations and hopes – but we don’t give up.
On July 4, we celebrate these two very American traits: aspiring for the best lives for all people, and never giving up in the face of adversity. 
I am proud to say that I believe the average Zimbabwean shares these characteristics with Americans. 
During my time here, I have seen some strong partnerships develop between our peoples, based on the desire to create better, more stable lives in the face of great adversity.
In addition to this, I have witnessed and tried to encourage productive, more respectful engagement between our governments. These are a few key examples of US-Zimbabwean partnership during my time here:
  • In the area of health, we have built strong ties.
Through the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief or PEPFAR, we are working closely with the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare to support 80 000 HIV+ Zimbabweans on anti-retroviral treatment.
I am very proud to say that this number will increase in 2012 to a total of 140 000 patients on ARVs.
Our plan is to add another 40 000 new patients in 2013.
In addition to this, we are working closely on the fight against malaria and other communicable diseases, as well as building the management skills of health professionals.
  • With rapid growth in Zimbabwe’s economy for the last three years, my embassy has seen an accelerated pace of inquiries from US businesses interested in exploring new opportunities here.
At the October 2011 “Doing Business in Zimbabwe” forum in Washington, DC, I made a point of saying, “Zimbabwe is open for business,” and I encouraged US companies to take a closer look.
Many businesspeople there believed that US sanctions prevented trade with Zimbabwe. This is not the case, and my team here has been proactive in reaching out to
US firms to clarify misperceptions about our policies.
Frequently these simple clarifications — an e-mail to the US firm or a new webpage dispelling the myths about our sanctions — are all that is needed to make the sale happen.
  • Finally, in the area of democratic reforms and the protection of human rights, I am proud to have spoken loudly and strongly against violence and intimidation.
I am equally committed to trumpeting the critical need for credible, transparent institutions. A stable, democratic nation is based on institutions, not individuals. 
With a strong, rights-focused constitution and legal structure, government representatives — both elected and civil servants — have a duty to promote the public good in a manner that benefits all of the people.
On June 14, President Obama signed a Presidential Policy Directive committing the United States to a forward-looking strategy of working closely with our African partners to advance prosperity, security, and dignity on the continent.
Developed with input from Africans and Americans in government and civil society, the new “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” sets forth four strategic objectives for US engagement in Africa, namely; strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development.
These four pillars are mutual areas of interest and concern for the US and Zimbabwe.
I feel confident today that we will continue to advance them by working in partnership in the years to come.
This was my last official July 4th celebration in Zimbabwe. My regular diplomatic assignment is coming to an end and my wife Myung and I are preparing to leave.
I will be leaving not only Zimbabwe, but also my career as a servant of the American people. After 30 years as a diplomat, preceded by 20 years as a soldier, it is time for me to retire and to devote most of my energy to the great intellectual love of my life: writing.
I have to note for the record: Retirement is not an entirely accurate description of our plans, because it implies inactivity.
I plan to remain actively involved in international affairs, as well as domestic affairs in the US, but now I will do this as a private citizen for the first time in 50 years.
So it may be accurate to say, as a friend of mine who recently retired as CEO of a company in Zimbabwe said, “I’m not really retiring — I’m just moving to new mountains to climb.”

  • Charles Ray is US Ambassador to Zimbabwe

Ambassador Charles Ray
Charles Ray is a writer of a number of works of fiction, including the popular Al Pennyback mystery series, and is a featured travel writer for Yahoo! Voices. He is also Diplomatic Editor for Asnycnow Radio.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chapter 2 of WIP, "Till Death Do Us Part"


     Quincy’s client arrived just as Buster was putting the well-charred steaks on our plates.  No one noticed him at first as he quietly walked around the corner of the house.  I sensed someone behind me and turned to find myself facing a slightly pudgy man with light brown skin, limp grey hair with a hairline at the top of his round skull, dressed in an expensive blue suit, and sweating despite the coolness of the evening air.

     “Uh, um, excuse me,” he said.  His voice was nasal and reedy.  “Is this the Mayweather residence?”

     “Yeah it is,” Buster’s booming voice said from behind the grille.  “But, it’s a little late in the day for door-to-door salesmen, ain’t it?”

     The man took a step back, raising his hands defensively.

     “That’s okay, Buster,” Quincy said, stepping over to stand beside the man who was looking as if he’d just been hit.  “This is Jacob Treworthy, a client of mine.  I hope you don’t mind.”  He looked imploringly at Alma, who looked blankly back at him.  “I asked him to stop by to speak to Al.  I know I should have told you before, or asked if it was okay, but I got caught up at work and forgot to call.”

     Buster made a snarling sound, but Alma walked over and laid a slim hand on his beefy forearm.

     “That’s no problem, Quincy,” she said.  “Mr. Treworthy’s welcome to join us.  We have more than enough food.  Would you like a drink, Mr. Treworthy?”

     The man smiled and nodded.

     Yes, if you don’t mind,” he said.  “A glass of water would be great.”

     Alma turned on Buster.

     “Go get the man a glass of water, Buster,” she said.  Buster frowned, but put the big fork he’d been using on the meat down and headed toward the kitchen.

     “You want ice in it?” Buster asked over his shoulder.

     “No, thank you,” Treworthy said.  “That won’t be necessary.”

     Alma had put a steak and some coleslaw on a plate and walking over to Treworthy she pushed it into his hands.

    “Here,” she said.  “Why don’t you find yourself a place to sit and eat this?  You look like you haven’t eaten in a while.”

     “Why, thank you, Mrs. Mayweather, I presume,” he said.  “I had a light lunch, but this looks and smells great.”

     He took the plate over and sat on the wooden bench attached to the picnic table Buster had built in his garage.  Quincy and I took our plates and sat on either side of him.

     “Jacob,” Quincy said.  “This is Al Pennyback.”

     “I sort of figured that,” Treworthy said.  “From what you told me about him; a pleasure to meet you Mr. Pennyback.”  He held out a pudgy hand.

     I shook his hand.  Surprisingly, for such a soft looking person, he had a firm handshake.

     “Same here,” I said.  “Considering the venue, why don’t you just call me Al?  Quincy said you had a problem you wanted my help with.”

     “Al it is, then.  I’m Jacob,” he said.  “I like that; you get right down to business.  I do have an issue that requires some delicate handling, and Quincy said you’re probably the best person to do it.”  He looked down at his plate.  “I need to give you some background, so you’ll understand fully what I need done.”

     “That’s not a bad idea.  Always helps to know what you’re getting into,” I said.

     “My wife Elizabeth and had only one child, a daughter.  I’m afraid we probably spoiled her terribly.  Allison; that’s her name; grew up into a headstrong woman, always had to have her own way.  She married against our wishes.  Not, mind you, that we didn’t want her to get married, but she married a man that I never trusted.  I think he did it just to get at her inheritance, you see.”

     “So,” I said, interrupting him.  “You want me to check him out, is that it?”  For someone who appreciated getting down to business, he took a long time to get to the point.

     “Well, not exactly; uh, that is, yes, I suppose I do want you to check his background.  But, I have to finish telling you the background.”

     “Sure,” I said.  “Go ahead.  Sorry for interrupting you.”

     He ignored my apology.

     “Anyway, Allison married this man against our wishes; about a year ago.  About two weeks ago, they went to Jamaica on vacation.  There was an incident; they were on an auto tour of the island when they were car-jacked.  Allison was killed in the incident.”

     “My sympathies, Jacob,” I said.  “It’s terrible when you lose a child, especially violently like that.”  I knew the pain of losing a child.  “So, what is it you want me to do, then?”

     “The Jamaican police wrote the incident off,” he said.  “They’re still looking for the men who did it; there were two of them; but, they aren’t really looking in the right place.”

     “I don’t understand.  This sounds like something out of my league.  If the police in Jamaica are investigating the crime, what does that have to do with your son-in-law?”

     “I think; no, I know, that Gordon had my daughter killed,” he said.  “I want you to prove it.”

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Bulawayo24 NEWS | Outgoing US ambassador Charles Ray proud of Matabeleland

Bulawayo24 NEWS | Outgoing US ambassador Charles Ray proud of Matabeleland