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Writers' Club of Whittier

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Live your dream: It could Happen to You

By Mary Terzian

        10357802_993761714039738_3986780144559719337_oWhen I wrote Politically Homeless: a Five Year Odyssey across Three Continents, I addressed it to a general audience and, primarily, to educational institutions. I hoped that young adults, looking for a job at the completion of their education, would read it. My job search flung me half across the globe. Now my book has taken over the push. I did not expect three respectable organizations to extend their membership to me:

– Women of Distinction Magazine is looking forward to featuring you and your article. It will now be noted “Recipient of the 2016 Excellence Award ….”

– The Honors Department of  The International Women’s  Leadership Association (IWLA) selected Mary Terzian for her outstanding leadership skills, commitment to her profession and contributions her community.

– Continental Who’sWho has awarded a plaque to Mary Terzian as “Pinnacle Professional Member” inducted into Continental’s Who’s Who circle.

I am certainly honored to be a member of these organizations. Authors never know where their Masterpiece will land, and it is always a pleasure to find out that their book has touched deep feelings, which is essentially the purpose: to shake and wake the reader to alternative realities. Will I ever make it to the Pulitzer Prize? Doubtful, but it is alright to keep the dream alive.  Here is an excerpt from Chapter One of the book. You be the judge.

“Your place is in the kitchen,” Father thundered, his green eyes bulging from their sockets.”You don’t need more education. You had more than enough already for a girl.”

That phrase, “for a girl,” seared my soul ad infinitum, whether for higher education, going to the movies, attending cultural events or just belonging to a club. Those activities were reserved for boys. I was the extra hand at home, Stepmother’s helper, if not her replacement. I would become a spinster for life if a suitor didn’t ask for my hand soon. In the 1950’s that was the normal expectation from Armenian girls in Cairo who were lucky enough to complete high school.

“You can’t feed a husband with books! You’re a woman!” Stepmother echoed, “you’re destined to keep house!” as if I wasn’t doing it already.Housekeeping is no brainer for heaven’s sake! How long does it take to tidy up a place, or learn to fold grape leaves over seasoned ground meat to make sarma or stuffed dolma? When did a housekeeper ever win a Nobel Prize?

I looked at my parents with glassy eyes, pursed lips and a poker face, an acquired habit developed at the Immaculate Conception English High School in Cairo where I had just graduated. The Irish nuns had helped me gain self-confidence. Otherwise I would have lost my temper and hollered back at my parents, an unforgivable sin. Father accused them of “raping my mind.” He didn’t suspect that they saved my life, by diverting my suicidal thoughts towards hope and patience. Sister Mary Visitation taught us a phrase that is etched on my brain to this day: “I can and I will.”There and then I made up my mind. “I will challenge that destiny. You can’t stop me!”  Without that promise to myself I would have burst into a volcano from the anger piled up in me.

School, my only escape, was over now and I felt like a caged bird.

“I told you several times to quit reading those stupid books,” Father lamented, “You never listened to me! They’re useless when you’re hungry! Learn to sew. Start learning a trade, otherwise you’ll starve!”

Four years earlier my high school education had been threatened the same way. Had it not been for my older brother Kev’s sneaky intervention reporting to Aunt Esther about my staying at home, I would not have had the opportunity to attend secondary school at fourteen. Aunt Esther kept an eye on us. She had intervened on my behalf while Uncle Avedis, Mama’s brother, was still alive, his presence giving more weight to her authority then. It was different now.

“What’s the use of your education now, tell me! After all that money spent on you!” Father grieved. He sounded as if it were a waste.

Survival had been the preoccupation of my parents’ generation. The Armenians living in Aintab, Mother’s ancestral town, and those in Killis, Father’s birthplace, had witnessed the emaciated shadows of human beings marching through their town. They were dispatched to their death in the hot, arid Syrian deserts, their only sin being a Christian. They were mostly seniors, women and children. The able-bodied men, fourteen years old and over, had been taken care of, Ottoman style. History labeled these once industrious, then impoverished individuals “starving Armenians,” adding insult to injury. The majority perished on the road for want of a drop of water, a slice of bread, or a shelter from threat. Few survived.

Fearing the same fate of deportation and massacres of infidels could befall them, and unable to defend themselves any more, those who could escape left their town overnight, following the departure of the French Army after the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. The French left behind not only the areas they had conquered, but also their promises of helping the population to take over their ancestral lands.

Father’s family was among the escapees. They probably endured hunger during their voluntary displacements. Although we never had a shortage of food at home, and during World War II we were reasonably rationed, his memory and fears lingered. He humbly picked up the last precious crumbs of bread from the table as if they were particles of Holy Communion. World War II had revived the apprehensions of the immigrant Armenian community that had barely found its footing.”What will happen to us now?” was the common worry.

Egypt, then a British Protectorate, had been hospitable to these impoverished remnants of a proud nation who wanted to keep their identity intact. The local Egyptian-Armenian communities had extended a helping hand to facilitate the integration of the arriving compatriots. Charitable organizations and benevolent patrons had financed the education of children whose parents could not afford tuition in Armenian schools. Father, however, was a proud man. He would never accept help from anyone. He paid for our education, Kev’s and mine, but he considered sending me to school a “waste of money”.

“Why does she need education? If she can read that’s enough! She’ll stay home and rear children.”

Mother was adamant. She was a woman ahead of her time: well-educated, insightful, and intelligent.

“Times are changing. Mary should be educated at the same level as the boys. Don’t you see the women working in the Army nowadays?”

“Berj will soon start kindergarten. I have to provide for him too. He’s a boy. He needs it more.”

“God will send his kismet just as He did when he was born. Don’t sacrifice the girl for him!”



The Chick Sexer – A Novel Education: Part 2

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age. What better way to get a feel for an era than reading the work of authors who lived and breathed at that time? Nobel prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata, wrote a book called The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. Basically plotless, the book’s sensual impressions of the seedy slum of Asakusa during the 1920’s and 30’s was exactly what I was looking for to bring Frankie Honda’s yakuza, gangster, uncle to life. The area, on the northern fringe of Tokyo, was home to a colorful parade of actors, hawkers, dancers, bums, con artists and prostitutes. Asakusa was a place that never slept.

I learned that the great depression hit Japan before America’s disastrous crash of October 1929. Tokyo had not yet recovered from the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in which 140,000 people were killed. When Frankie’s Uncle Hitomi gives him the rickshaw tour of Asakusa in The Chick Sexer they pass Hanayashiki park, thick with the jobless and the homeless. “Under the Stars Boarding House,” says Uncle Hitomi. “Biggest hotel in Japan.”

“Desires dancing naked…Asakusa, heart of Tokyo…marketplace of humans…strange rhythm.” Pieces of lyrics drift back to Frankie as his rickshaw puller sings a popular song of the day. Japan was known for her pleasure districts. In the early 1900’s girls were sold into prostitution if their parents couldn’t support them or if they were orphaned. Sandakan No. 8 (Brothel 8) is a heart-wrenching Japanese movie on the subject, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1974.

A fellow with the Flickr name of Okinawa Soba has an amazing collection of photos of old Japan. With a high quality scanner he turns 3-D stereoscopic post cards into wonderful vintage photos. Popular postcards of the day included geisha posed in gardens with parasols or in rickshaws, oiran in their impossibly high shoes and prostitutes behind bamboo bars in the pleasure quarters, prisoners of poverty.

Oiran, mistress, geisha, geiko, prostitute – different status? Different levels of female degradation, but then arranged marriages for many women also meant a life of drudgery. Mother-in-laws treated their son’s wives as slaves. Memoirs of a Geisha – I reread the book and watched the movie again. When the film was released in 2005 I was anxious to hear my Japanese American students’ opinions of it. Most of them were peeved that the main actress was Chinese.

Many young Nisei who were sent back to Japan for education didn’t speak the language well and were unfamiliar with the status concepts in the country of their ancestors. Often they didn’t know the who and the how and the depth of the Japanese bow. In the opening scene of The Chick Sexer, sixteen-year-old Frankie realizes his teacher is waiting for him to bow. His young class mates find his fumbling attempt at the respectful gesture hilarious. Frankie thinks: How should I know how to bow? I’m an American. I have never bowed to anyone in my life.

to be continued . . .


West of Whittier

Jessamyn West

Jessamyn West

Because I admire Jessamyn West, I keep a file on her, hoping to one day assemble thoughts and details into an article. I might even put “Friendly Persuasion” on my Netflix queue for motivation. At the moment I am reading an autographed copy of her 1973 Hide And Seek — A Continuing Journey and would like to share an excerpt, to close out the month of August and to celebrate our Writers’ Club theme “Vacation.”

As background, please know that Jessamyn West proudly proclaimed “Solitude has always excited me.” Me, too! It’s the ultimate vacate-tion. She added that she wasn’t sure it would be quite so exciting if condemned to a prison cell or cast away on a desert island, but “when the opportunity for solitude must be stolen…it is, like stolen fruits, very sweet.”

In Indiana at age four (and probably until she was six in Whittier) little Jessamyn would sit in a round metal washtub and admonish her baby brother “Stay out!” As a school-aged girl in Yorba Linda she “found larger quarters: a piano box instead of a tub” where she could secretly observe adults, children and animals. As an adult she escaped via travel trailer, one which she named Walden on Wheels, planting herself along the Colorado River. “Was Thoreau never lonely?,” she asked. “Certainly. Where do you think writing like his comes from? Camaraderie?”

She also admitted, to my delight, “I’m not the greatest woman in the world for going, but when it comes to stopping, I am hard to beat.”

Thank you, Ms. West. It’s been a pleasure traveling with you.

—Jessamyn West became an Honorary Member of WCW in the 1970s.


Pantser. Not Pants, Sir!

Pantser Princess

The other day, at one of our club-sponsored book talk, author Kathleen Harrington mentioned the difference between plotters versus pantsers. You would think she was discussing some sorts of printer used in Manga graphic arts. Ever heard of Pantser Princess?

But the queen of romance, although her job was to paint sexy medieval ladies whose exquisitely-embroidered gowns were meant to reveal rather than conceal, didn’t mean that Pantser. I knew! And if you didn’t, let me speak in plain English. The novelist who plans everything from beginning to end is a plotter. S/he works with an outline, while a pantser is like me. We sit down with nothing concrete and start typing furiously until a story takes form. We are the true artists because our virginal minds conceive from the angels.

Just like what I’m doing right now. I sat down with no preconceived ideas about my blog topic until suddenly, as I and my fingers clickaty-clack along like a choo-choo train through deserted tracks, a form appears in the fog and lies down on those very tracks my fingers are choo chooing along. Kazaam! Unlike the train, I didn’t try to brake. Au contraire! My fingers take off in a hot race against multiple thoughts that threaten to dissolve into emptiness, thoughts that distract as well as interesting ones whose faces I long to uncover, running so breathlessly behind. Clang, clang, my fingers, the three or four that take charge, bounce along quickly across the keyboard, until I catch up to the faceless thought, or thoughts. It will be much more difficult if I catch up to too many of them, because they all turn in different directions, all quivering and wanting to slip away as I’m preoccupied with the other. It is almost impossible to force them to sit down in one group and behave like one loving family. They are a bunch of energetic thought bunnies. Even with seven pairs of hands it would be hard to catch them all and not lose any of them thought bunnies.

But one kicking and screaming bunny is enough to feed my whole village.

In the end, I’ll wipe my greasy hands on my pants and lick my chops satisfied. That’s why they call people like me pantsers.

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Blink: Not Your Everyday’s Book Review

Read Blink, Steve commented after I shared on Facebook that many of my right-on-target life decisions were made intuitively. Blink is a nonfiction written by Malcolm Gladwell. His subjects are based on science, reproducible and proven but oh, so dry and tedious. Normally, such subjects will not earn an author household readers like me. In Gladwell’s case, however, written in light prose easily decoded, his books offer hard scientific treatise to readers of adequate cognitive ability without ruining the reading experience.

So I pull Blink off my shelf and fulfill the promise that one day I will read it–too many good books too little time has been my perpetual problem. As Gladwell walks me through the many aspects of “thinking without thinking”, one term keeps coming back: thin-slicing–our brains’ method to instantly prep rough microscopic slides from life’s moments to diagnose viability. In other words, we intuit life’s decisions, the kinds attributed to destiny or fate, based on those blurry images seen through inferior, clumsily-adjusted school instruments. Decisions like,

Is this man my life partner?

Is it our dream house?

Should I trust this babysitter?

Blink Think isn’t fool-proof, Gladwell cautions us, not because the method is faulty, but more because of the biological nature of our brains that is subjected to fatigue, easily overloaded, cross-wired, influenced, or distracted.

Blink Think works only in life-impacted instances, when one asks oneself, should I engage in this dark alley at this time, should I brake or swerve, or should I accept this too-good-to-be-true job offer, etc.

IMG_4682Blink Think works best when given more time; any bit of extra time would help reduce the error factors. Remember the decision Pete Carroll, Seattle’s Seahawks’ coach, made to take away the team’s football from Marshawn Lynch and trusted it to Beast Mode? It was his gravest Blink Think failure. In those quick moment when the dynamic of the game was most volatile and intense, Carroll might have thought too much. He might have relied heavily on his logical thinking rather than his gut feeling. He had opted to compute instead of compulsively listening to his heart.

Blink Think can be trained, Gladwell promises. Page following page, I anticipate that moment when his gift will be delivered in my hands. His afterword blows away that hope; I put away the book without learning how to Blink Think better, more than what I already know. Should I intuit that knowledge from reading the book cover to cover? It isn’t part of the deal.

Nonetheless, Blink is a decent read. My curiosity and hunger for knowledge were aroused throughout. As the chapters advance, Gladwell constantly nudges me on by reminding me what I have read. By reciting the case examples he has used to illustrate his points, Gladwell has done well to keep me afloat with him. Now I understand that intuitive thinking is not the product of imagination, nor my blink think a lucky guess or statistical coincidence. It’s this; our knowledge about the power of thinking is still limited, because human is more than the formation of chemicals into physical masses. We possess that elusive, God-like quality that is our unique, non-imitable power.

May we use it wisely!IMG_4683

PS: A receipt from Borders Bookstore fell out from within the pages of my book. Is it another proof of failed blink think? You tell me!


Finding Good Mystery Books

IMG_2038How do you find a good mystery?

I raced through all of Sherlock Holmes as a kid, and then, suddenly, I was done. Doyle was dead and I’d read all the Holmes stories he had written. After that, it was the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Some time later I went on an Agatha Christie binge. I read her books over lunch in a department store dining room, surrounded by old ladies. It was perfect. Any one of them might have been another Miss Marple, slicing chicken and sipping tea while she considered who might have left Joanna dead in the greenhouse.

But sooner or later every mystery reader must face the same quandary: How do I find the next wonderful book? Continue reading