Monday, May 25, 2015

Freedom Fighters Volunteer to Fight ISIS

A YPG anti-Isis volunteer fighter
You might have heard by now that President Barack Obama, while addressing the class of graduating officers at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut last week, pointed to Climate Change as America's most immediate and present threat to our national security. While I have no doubt that climate change is real (several climate shifts have occurred over the last 1,000 years alone), my staunch opinion is this: you don't turn to your wife in the middle of the night and ask her to turn down the thermostat while a masked gunman is standing at the foot of your bed.

On this Memorial Day 2015 it's important to realize that while they gain ground and slaughter innocents thousands of miles away, ISIS is determined to create a Radical Islamist State in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. And they are succeeding. It's true the US might not be able to stomach another ground war right now since we've been sending our soldiers to fight two major conflicts over the past fifteen years. But like the Nazis of WWII, ISIS will have to be dealt with sooner or later, and the US will inevitably have to lead the way. The coalition the President claims to have set up among some of the Arab states has proven ineffective to the point of failure. In the end, the political campaign promise to withdraw all troops from Iraq has proven catastrophic.

But some people aren't willing to stand on the sidelines and watch a brutal enemy who willingly decapitates children, get away with cold blooded and often gruesome murder. Like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that was formed to fight the Fascists in Spain in the mid-1930s, men and women are volunteering to take up arms against the Radical Islamist threat before they are able to form a viable state. A state that, when solidified, could easily be backed by Iran and in the process, afforded funds to build a considerable war arsenal which will include air and sea warfare capabilities.

Sound ridiculous?

When you consider the Nazi Party essentially began in a beer hall by a group of half-witted antisemitic agitators, a formidable ISIS army capable of taking on anything the US will have to dish out doesn't sound all that "JV-ish."

Member of the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade

While we hear about the hundreds of western young adults trying to join the enemy cause, dozens of right-minded westerners, including famous Hollywood actor Michael Enright, are paying their own way to join up with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in order to prevent the black flag of ISIS from flying. Make no mistake, what's happening in Africa and elsewhere is the start of a world Radical Islamist vs. Judeo/Christian war, and the sooner a realistic plan is put in place to exterminate these cockroaches, the better.

Maybe the volunteer army of freedom fighters isn't going to make a dent in the ISIS steamrolling push, but at least it represents a start. It also serves as a reminder on this Memorial Day, that to some people, dishing out hard-earned cash to risk their life is well worth the price of freedom.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Camel Meat a Tasty Alternative

The famous (or infamous) Medina in Fez is a near impossible to navigate maze of Medieval corridors and alleyways surrounded on all sides by a great stone wall. Something like one million people are stuffed inside the place and they all coexist like ants inside one of those vertical ant farms that parents reluctantly purchase for their more nerdy, science-minded kids. How fascinating to move around among the meat vendors selling sheep’s heads, camel hearts, and lamb’s brains, and the metal pot craftsman who work together banging out their wares to a rhythm that would challenge any drummer (myself included), plus dress makers, knife makers, food stalls, spice and perfume shops, clothe and leather merchants. The smell is smoked meat goodness combined with rancid leather tanneries (which also exist inside the city walls), spices, dust, mold, and body odor. At various times, you need to turn yourself sideways in order to pass through a narrow corridor.

The point (or one of the points anyway) of this excursion is to eat camel. Now, I enjoy a good burger just like the next guy. But I’ve never really considered camel as an option over say, sirloin or Angus beef. But around Morocco and especially inside the Medina, camel meat seems to serve as quite the specialty while narrow stalls advertise the fact that they carry camel meat by nailing a severed camel head to the wall. Makes me want to belt out a Rachael Ray "Yumo."

Standing outside the stall where a charcoal grill is going in the back, we order our camel burgers while flies surf the chunk of raw red meat currently laid out on the sales counter. We take a seat inside the impossibly cramped eating area and nervously drink mint tea while the not unappetizing aroma of cooking camel burger fills our nostrils, the sound of meat grilling and fat spattering serving as the soundtrack. 

When the burgers arrive they’re served on a crusty bun with tomato and lettuce. Instinctively I look for some Heinz 57, but a nondescript hot sauce will have to do. I pick up the burger two-fisted, take a whiff of the smoky flavor then dig in. 

Okay, we’ve all heard the saying about all foreign eats tasting like chicken. But this meat is different. It tastes like meat should taste. Rich, full of flavor, and juicy. The spices added to the ground meat only enhance the flavor. Turns out I didn’t need the Heinz anyway.

The camel burger gets polished off. Happily. Should I worry about getting sick later? Perhaps it’s a good idea to pop a Cipro provocatively, just to make sure. In any case, I’ll find out in about eight hours when the thing digests if I’m going to spend the night glued to the toilet or not. For now, I lock eyes with the camel head hanging on the stall wall as I move on deeper into the overcrowded Medina.
“Thanks for lunch, pal,” I whisper.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Moroccan Train Travel At Your Own Risk

I fully expected mayhem in India. When it comes to boarding a train that is. I expected such congestion and a swarming of overpopulation that it would be near impossible to board a train without being seriously hurt and/or killed. And that did happen when a woman lost her leg trying to rush a train that was about to leave in Orcha. She dropped into the too wide space between train car and concrete platform, her left leg slipping onto the track as the train began to move, severing her leg at the knee. I was there to see her pulled up and out of the no-man's-land-like track pit and laid to rest on her back while she bled out, no one coming to her aid other than those praying for her soul.

But in Morocco, the boarding of a train, even a first class car, can also be a heart wrenching experience, while men and women bull their way inside a space that can only hold so much flesh and bone without bursting. There is no organization, no politeness, and above all, no civility. That is, until you are finally on the train and, having negotiated a place to stand (or sit, such as on top of the coffee bar in the inoperable cafe car), some kind gentleman offers you a freshly picked date from a paper bag. Mere moments before he might have gladly kicked your ass out the door if it meant he had just a little more space to himself.

Fights break out between men. Not swinging fists necessarily. But shouting matches, with fists clenched, not raised or poised to punch. One man trying to prove his macho manner over the other as if the security of an entire nation depends upon who enters the train car first. For certain these men condemn one another's souls for all eternity. It's like watching fighting cocks without the full contact or spilled blood. But that doesn't mean attempting to board a train in Morocco isn't a contact sport. Far from it. This isn't a very writerly description, but suffice to say, it is what it is.

Morocco is certainly not Italy when it comes to keeping train schedules. It's actually more like Amtrak in the states when running an hour or more behind is as common as food stamps. After all, a train system run by the government is a surefire means for inefficiency and carelessness. Workers get paid regardless.

But I digress.

For the weary traveler (or even someone traveling with an adventure company like Intrepid or Peak Adventures), just know this: If you are traveling in Morocco by train, pay for a first class ticket, because then you at least have a chance of getting a real seat, although it might not be the one you paid for. Maintain a sense of humor and a sense of balance since it's likely you'll have to stand. But above all, get over yourself and have a sense of humor. After all, you're not back in the states riding Amtrak. You're in Morocco, a land of enchantment and mystery.

The author shares a coffee bar for a seat with a stranger


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Casablanca Never Visited

The many faces of Morocco

For a second there, I think I'm in Paris, with the many cafes bearing French titles taking up prime real estate on the countless street corners in the old bustling district of Casablanca. But of course I'm not. I'm planted on a different continent altogether. My third trip back to Africa. This time to the extreme North West or Morocco.

I wasn't sure what to expect in this country's biggest city that is as much European as it is Arabian (you can practically swim to Spain from Tangiers way up north). I avoided this area of the globe for a long time picturing caravans of tourists attempting to catch a glimpse of the Arabic speaking world not from their armchairs necessarily, but the closest mobile equivalent possible. Thus far anyway, I've seen little evidence of the cheese factor, lets call it.

I'm pleasantly surprised that this city has not lost its charm, or edge, in that the buildings that line both sides of the old Boulevard Mohammed V are still of the old white, pre-war (WWII that is), stucco-covered Parisian style architecture. Overhangs protect the outdoor cafes not from the rains (which most surely come at some point) but from the relentless sun...a bright warmth which is decidedly welcome in late April coming from a guy who just spent the majority of the never ending Winter up in Albany. If you want an idea of just how warm it is at present, think Miami, Florida or Los Angeles, California, and you get the idea. Still, it's not unusual to spot a woman outfitted from head to toe in a black abaya and khimar with a North Face down parka zipped all the way up to the neck, especially in the early evening.

This is a big city of 6 million, so there is constant activity...voices shouting in Arabic or French or a combination horns...sputtering motorcycle engines...robed young men pushing carts with battery powered speakers blaring prayers or a call to prayer anyway...fruit venders...police car sirens...Play Station cafes with patrons smoking Dhoka from water pipes...

For the Tony Bourdaine types out there, the street food here is pretty safe, so long as its cooked well. For lunch yesterday I scarfed a hot dog panini. I'm not entirely sure what the hot dog was made of, and it's probably a good idea that ignorance rules the day here. But it was served inside a deliciously crusty bread with vegetables. I finished the small meal with a cafe au lait.

For dinner I ventured out for a Moroccan version of a steak sandwich which are beef chunks cooked kabob style over a coal-fired oven. The beef is placed inside bread which is stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, and cooked green olives. It's wrapped in a tube made of paper to which a heaping helping of French fries is piled on top. The meal, along with a Moroccan beer (yes, you can drink alcohol here in this mostly Muslim country) cost a whopping 30 Dirham, or about three bucks US. I made certain to tip generously since, unlike Europe, this is a "tipping culture," or so the guidebook tells me.

One last item: I did inquire respectfully to my driver about the, ummm ISIS problem, with its presence in Algeria, Libya, and most points east and its training camps in Mauritania to the immediate south-west. Just last month a major ISIS cell was broken up, not to mention the refugees that are entering the country hoping to get to Europe. The tall, dark, wiry, thirty-something man was quick to tell me, "In Morocco, we practice an Islam that is all about the liberty and freedom. We will not tolerate ISIS. That is politics we do not want."

I hope things stay that way.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Global US Troop Deployment Inevitable

Troops in training at Fort Drum

I've been saying for some time now that the seeds of a major war are being sewn in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Korea. While I'm not convinced the Russians wish for a major conflict, North Korea, ISIS, and the Iranians might as well hold up flags that say, "Bring it on, Bro!" 

As for the Middle East situation, it's looking more and more like a nuclear deal is not happening. At least a deal that makes sense in terms of denying the Iranians a bomb. My guess is they either already possess a nuke or are fast on their way regardless. ISIS is spreading like a cancer and active recruitment for the radical Islamist terrorist group has now reached all points west. While Christians are beheaded by the dozens, Israel can't stand by idly for long while as their assured destruction is birthed inside a deep not so secret "secret" underground bunker facility in Fordo.

Meanwhile, you'll recall the Russians I mentioned who don't want war? Well, they've just made a deal to sell the Iranians missiles to go with the nukes they apparently don't have or ummm, don't want. And don't forget our Naval Fleet tracking an Iranian convoy off the coast of Yemen. In the words of the State Department, we just want to protect the flow of commerce. Huh? The joint is on fire. What commerce? Welcome to the new world order where a US that leads from behind or not at all, invites a world that crumbles into chaos and quite possibly, WWIII.

As if to confirm my suspicions, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Bannister, Commander of the 10th Mountain Division in  Watertown, NY,  said this week that a major deployment is being planning for 13 months from now, and the destinations will not only include Afghanistan and Iraq, "where division soldiers have been a fixture since 9/11," but also Europe and possibly South Korea.

Get the full story you won't read on the major news networks (or MSNBC) by clicking HERE.

To quote the General, "This (deployment) is part of our assurance to our allies. You can't just pull out; you have to assure them."

The 13 month time-line makes sense since the Obama administration, in its attempt to secure a Nobel Peace Prize for its appeasement to Iran, wants nothing to do with what is shaping up to be a well planned murder of global proportions. He would prefer to kick the can to the next president whoever he or she may be.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Do you Plot it or Wing it?

Indy, making it up as he goes...

Do you plot, plan, outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? Why?...

...Seems like a straightforward set of questions, doesn’t it. But in truth, the answer’s not so simple. On more than one occasion, I’ve overheard established authors referring to their novels as “their babies.” That said, if I were to use the baby analogy to answer the question of are you a Plotter or a By-the-seat-of-your-pants author, I might say, Like my three kids, two of them were planned out ahead of time, from conception, to gestation, to setting up the nursery, to birth, to diaper service, to weekly babysitting, and everything else required of the first full year of a little baby’s life. It took a lot of thought, time and effort, but in the end, planning things out made for a smooth and happy experience.  

The second child required a bit less planning, but still, we made sure to plan ahead to a degree where we were confident that all would turn out smoothly. But by the time we got to the last kid, well, we weren’t even sure we could get pregnant, so we just sort of winged it. When we found out we were pregnant we just sort of went with the flow, allowing things to happen naturally. After all, we’d been through it twice before and realized that sometimes over-planning can take the fun and spontaneity out of the process. After all, life is a process of discovery if nothing else. So should writing a novel.

Okay, perhaps I’m pushing the baby metaphor to the breaking point here, but by now I’m sure my motive is obvious. When I was younger and just out of writing school in the late 1990s, I didn’t have the confidence or to be perfectly frank, the skills required to write a novel by the seat of my pants. Even if my characters were strong, their voices already speaking to me, I needed to plan out every plot point, from inciting incident to first conflict, to conflict resolution, to the epilogue. Not only did creating a clear plan help me construct and flesh out my novel, it also allowed me to go on the next morning without being stuck. 

As time went on however, and I became more comfortable with the novel process, I found that I was able to write a full length, 60K word piece of work by outlining only a few chapters at a time. I found that by planning anything beyond that would take away from my protagonist’s ability to make it up as he or she went along. Because life is a lot like that isn’t it? Often times, we find ourselves adapting to unforeseen circumstances regardless of how much we attempt to stay in control. You know, someone sideswipes your new car at the intersection, or you find that your wife’s been cheating on you…Life isn’t perfectly scripted by any sense of the word. This new method of semi-outlining allowed the novel to develop organically as opposed to one that’s built by connecting the dots. 

These days, after writing 17 novels, all of which are in print, I have enough confidence to sit down at my laptop with just a shred of an idea and in turn, build a novel out of it. That’s not to say I don’t spent time jotting down notes, or little bits of story outline, or even a page-length character synopsis or two. But what I don’t require anymore is a detailed outline. In fact, I purposely avoid it. With experience comes confidence. With confidence comes the freedom to allow your story…your baby…to take itself where it will.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Declaring Digital Independence: Advice for Writers

Marketing guru and writer Seth Godin is a master when it comes to offering straight forward advice on how to be creative and at the same time, avoid distraction. It dawned on me recently that I have been spending way too much time looking at emails (which these days are overstuffed with SPAM), Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of it.

When it comes to my Dumbphone, texts have been killing me. WhatsAp is fun (and free) especially when I'm overseas, but just hearing the short vibrating buzz that accompanies an incoming message while I'm writing makes me go ballistic. I'm guessing Mr. Godin feels the same way which is why he's offered up five quick and easy steps in reducing the digital virus in your life:

  1. Turn off mail and social media alerts on your phone.
  2. Don't read the comments. Not on your posts or on the posts of other people. Not the reviews and not the trolls.
  3. De-escalate the anger in every email exchange.
  4. Put your phone in the glove compartment while driving.
  5. Spend the most creative hour of your day creating, not responding.
To add to this, turn off your social media while you're writing. In fact, perhaps check it in the morning, and then check in again in the evening. Use the rest of the time for creativity. Think about it, in the old days, you didn't check your snailmail box at the end of the driveway fifteen times a day. If you had, the neighbors would have chalked you up as either schizo or suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. At the very least, you'd be taking meds for ADD.

I particularly like Godin's suggestion No. 2. Don't read the reviews and don't pay attention to the trolls. Good advice for fiction writers like me who make a living off of their words. Many of the said "trolls" are wannabe writers who find it impossible to make a living without cheating or engaging in social media assassination.  

But wait, not being close to your phone and/or email and texts makes you anxious?
Remember, if there's an emergency, someone will get in touch with you one way or another. But do you really need to view a text about what color sweater someone is wearing today? Or what song is playing on the radio? Is it worth interrupting your work for absolute nonsense?

Enjoy your social media gadgetry and your digital Dumphone. Just don't let it take control of your life.

 _ _ _

"Most people wouldn’t think that pyromania and parenting would go together, but hey, every family is different. For me to lose myself in a thriller, I need characters (fire starters or not) I can care deeply about—action scenes alone won’t do it. Everything Burns took me on a psychological roller-coaster ride through action and emotion that I can’t forget."--Kjersti Egerdahl, T&M Editor

EVERYTHING BURNS ... the Amazon Number 1 Bestselling Psychological Suspense Thriller.