The Great Balancing Act

You have a blog, you’re writing a book, you own your own business, you have kids, you have a home, you have a life, and they all seem to run like a well rusted machine.  How do you do it? What is the secret to keeping a balance between all of life’s obligations?  The crank shaft in life is seizing up and you don’t know how to get the oil between the gears.  I have asked many professionals throughout my career, “How do I find a balance that keeps everyone happy?”  The answer is simple: set your priorities, make a schedule, and learn to say “no”.

Yeah, right.  It might be so simple for all of “them” but for me?  My life changes hour to hour moment to moment.  How the heck am I going to do a schedule of any kind when I can’t even get a shower every morning?  My three year old went dancing through the house one day singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiitttt!” to music she composed in her head on her way through the room, and you think I’m going to put any priority higher than my daughter?  HA!  You were crazier than I thought.

This is how I went through business and family life for more than twenty years.  Bouncing from one fire to the next and never really getting anything done.  The gears just got rustier.  Over and over I asked the same question, “How do I balance everything and still keep my sanity?”  Over and over I heard that same answer, “Set priorities, make a calendar, and learn to say no.”  Then one day I actually did it.

I had to take a look at balancing my children, my business, my social life, and my creative self (which is writing).  I found a simple grid to be the key for success, and it takes the lowest amount of brain power to produce.  You can even do it as you read along.  First get a sheet of blank printer paper and a pencil (no pens for this exercise).  Draw three or four columns and head each column with the things you are trying to balance.  Some of you may only be balancing three aspects of life and some four, and there are even those balancing eight or ten.  For the sake of simplicity, keep it at four for now. Examples of the types of headings could be: Writing, Family, Business, Social.   Be sure one of those headings is: ME.  You (that’s who the “me” heading is for) need to take care of yourself as much as you need to take care of the rest of your life’s obligations.

The next step requires you to have part of your brain turned off.  As they say in the writing business, “Just puke this part out.” Don’t pass judgement on anything you write, and don’t quantify anything at this point either.  Under each heading list every aspect that is important to that part of your life.  Let’s say you want to write everyday, call on customers for your glow in the dark paper clip business, play bingo with your buddies, and go ice skating with your kids.  List each of these under their appropriate heading.  Keep listing everything until you can’t think of any more.  Remember, no judgements no quantifying. Now, for each of the items listed under each heading, decide what is the number one most important aspect of that area, the second, and the third, until all of the items are numbered.  Take the first five items under each category and consider these the top priorities in your life at the moment.  Of course these priorities change second to second, but these are at the top of the list right now.  Cross everything else off your list until next week.

You are allowed pass judgement and quantify each of these items now. As you do, be honest with yourself as to how much time you really need to spend on each activity.  If you think you need to spend ten hours a day on building a better paperclip then you better expect only fourteen left to sleep, ice skate, and play bingo.  Be realistic with your time.  You need to sleep at least 8 hours which leaves only 16 hours to divide up between everything that is left on your list. There are, obviously, only 7 days in a week so, again, be realistic with your time.  If your top five priorities need to be done this week then choose a day and put it on your calendar doing the number one most important thing first.  If that number one thing needs two days to complete then be sure to allow enough days for the rest.  Continue this process until you either run out of time, or you run out of tasks.  If you have spare time then pull in something you left on the list that fell lower on the priorities.  If you get everything done early then reward yourself with a day of ice skating.

So, what kind of calendar?  I experimented with every type of calendar under the sun from the most complex, (complete with a rainbow of highlighters) to the most basic, (sticky notes were all over my desk).  After this not so scientific experiment, I found that my my favorite calendar wasn’t very complex (I hate to think too hard on this stuff), and each day did need enough room for notes and alternative plans.  I am also proud to say that I have graduated from sticky notes into the computer age, my Smartphone is attached to my Gmail that has my main calendar.  This is the heart of everything in my life. It makes sure that I’m not meeting with my publisher at the same time that my son has a guitar performance.  It also makes sure that I am spending the time I need (and want) for myself and my Bingo parties.

When setting time limits for each task you may want to question whether the time you have allotted is on the best day and time.  Do you really need to spend ten hours a day developing a clip color, or is it more that you think you should be doing this because you are trying to develope the best red clip before the other clip builders out there?  Yes or No?  There are only two answers and the easiest choice is yes, but the right one might be no.

“No? Really? Are you crazy? They really want an awesome red clip and I have to get it done now. I can’t say NO to my number one paperclip customer!” Oh, yes you can!    If you are serious about making a calendar and setting priorities, and getting your life under control, then you better be serious about saying “No” right to the bitter/sweet end.  “No” is a very difficult word to cultivate into our business life.  Many of us were raised to believe the customer is always right and whatever they need we try to make happen whether it interferes with our private life or not.  “No” is also the first, and most hated word we learn as a child.  “No” is the term that denies us of something we want and as adults we don’t want to deny a want to others so we just say yes.  It’s easier.

Let’s say your best paperclip customer calls you and asks to meet at the last minute.  Your knee jerk reaction might be to say, “YES, I’d love to meet you for a drink tonight to go over the launch of the red mini clip line.”  Yet, on your calendar you scheduled writing. By accepting this last minute invitation for drinks, you are actually saying to yourself, “YES, I can put off my writing time so I can have drinks with him even though I have 20,000 words to finish in two days.”  Stay in control of your time and your calendar.  Keep your priorities set so that you are doing the things you need to do, when you need to do them.  Consider saying, “I’m sorry I can’t make drinks tonight, but I have time on Tuesday at 3 pm to meet with you for about an hour.  Does that work for you?”  Re-read that.  Even though you have said “no” to your customer, you have also given them (and you) a solution by giving an alternative plan.

I have spewed over fifteen hundred words at you about balancing your life and your writing profession, and you might be feeling overwhelmed.  RELAX.  It takes time to get into the swing of setting priorities, keeping a calendar, and getting comfortable with saying “no”.  When I first started I kept track of every minute just so I could figure out where my time was going.  Funny, I found I spent more time on Facebook then I imagined.  No wonder I had no time for Bingo!  After months of practice and honing in on what my calendar and my priorities, I found my life running more like a well oiled machine. I chipped away at the rusty spots on a regular basis and, as a result, my writing machine started humming along without the loss of my sanity.  I’m happier, my family is happier, my business gets the attention it needs and I now write everyday.  Without fail.

…and Now For the Present

This morning I was on a writers’ check-in (DelveWriting.com) and we were discussing what the definition of a writer is. Several of my fellow writers felt  they were not being taken seriously by their family and friends.  We all know we are writers yet the lack of outside support brought the whole idea into a bit of a question mark. When is a writer a writer and how is that defined?

Just over 3 months ago my personal life made an unexpected left turn that forced a directional change in my profession.  My entire life has been spent in one creative medium or another (painting, photography, jewelry design, and writing just to name a few) with many of these, amazingly, provided me with a bit of an income too.  Writing was a constant since I can remember.  I wrote my first poem in grade school.  In high school I consumed everything ever written by Edgar Allen Poe, and wrote as much as I read.  College was the same.  I studied creative writing and wrote several articles for local and online publications.  As adulthood came and went (I think I’m back in my youth) I found myself reading hundreds of books from science fiction/fantasy to historical novels, and from the spiritual to steam-punk. Then, for the last 8 years I pursued several businesses that sucked my time, and my life, with little reward.

At the beginning of 2013 I found myself, yet again, re-evaluating my career and saw an opportunity to do something that has niggled at me since I can remember.  Now, in reliving some of my youth, I find myself with a writer’s itch and have started a novel of my own.  Does this make me a professional writer?  If you do a Google search with the key words “definition of writer” and “definition of author” the results are very similar.  The word “author” is simply defined as someone who writes a poem, novel, report, blog, letter or any type of manuscript.  A writer, on the other hand, does the same thing with the added note that the items he or she has authored are published and the writer is being paid to do the work.  Following this line of thought brings us to the notion that everyone who has ever written something, whether a letter to Aunt Genevieve or a poem to an ex-wife, is an author.  The writer gets paid to do the same things.

On the surface, these differences may seem trivial to the passing reader, but to a writer they can make the difference between being the family’s poet for greeting cards, or a best selling novelist who rubs elbows with the likes of Agathie Christie or Norman Mailer.  It is the difference between being taken seriously and given an “atta-boy” pat on the back.  In my opinion, a writer is a person who takes their work seriously enough to spend the time it takes to create a work of written art and then have the gumption to believe they should be paid for it.

Vietnamese Culture Camp Makes A Wonderful Weekend

I have just returned from a wonderful weekend in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado! This was the Vietnamese Heritage Camp at Snow Mountain Ranch. Our whole family had an incredible time and this is our view on the event.

We went up on Thursday evening to allow us time to get settled and find out the where and when of things. We had dinner at the Buckboard Grill which is right there at the ranch. The menu was your basic grill food … nothing to brag about but good.

Friday was a day for all the families to have time together. Most of us went on a wagon ride which the kids thought was great fun. They took us to the original settlement homestead where the kids saw first hand how the early settlers of the west lived. After the wagon ride our family divided with Mark taking Cody on the pony ride and the petting farm, and I and Kyra on an hour horseback ride through the beautiful woods. We then went back to the Rawley Room (where registration and workshops were held) to find many families were arriving. A total of 42 families came from California, New York, Colorado, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. While registration was in full swing some of the families made “lacquer” boxes. Everyone created some wonderful boxes. The opening ceremony introduced everyone that organized this years event with a loud round of applause going to Marcia Baird who was the director of this year’s camp, along with a standing ovation for the camp counselors. Many thanks were given to all of the volunteers who helped to make this camp a success. We then broke into groups for volunteer training. Everyone that attends the camp (adults) has a volunteer position at the camp to help in some way whether it was as clean-up crew or the dragon parade, everyone pitches in.

Saturday was the big day. We started the day with a group photograph at 8:30 AM which was followed by the start of the workshops. All of the kids went with their camp councilors divided by their grade in school. Their day was spent in one of 6 areas. The middle school kids went on a Challenge course with the Snow Mountain staff where they learned team building skills. The younger kids were off to build a dragon, learn Vietnamese songs, hear folk tales, plant “rice”, make dragon masks, learn a little of the language, or have HeART Talks. HeART Talks is a wonderful program that uses art as a form of expressing feelings and thoughts regarding adoption, culture, family, and more.

The adults were off to their own programs.Trish Maskew talked of the issues involved in bring a new child into a family, whether the child was an infant or older. Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero shared her experiences and photographs while she was living and teaching in Vietnam. There was an open discussion with Jessica Medinger and her adoptive mother about being adopted and being an adoptive parent. Sister Sen Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and left as one of the “boat people” shared slides and talked about the religion and philosophies of Vietnam and how these have melded together to make the Vietnamese who they are and why. Cherie Clark was there for an informal discussion on IMH issues as well as a book signing. Then, of course, Kathy Jorin joined this wonderful group to share her expertise in a Vietnamese Cooking class which left our cabin smelling delicious!

Saturday evening was very special. We had a blast! After dinner the children dressed in their best Vietnamese outfits for the Dragon Parade. Each class had made their own dragon that they were able to show off with the company of dragon dancers from Queens Vietnamese Modern Church youth group. We were then treated to a show that was introduced by Cam Tren. There were songs, a fan dance, a skit that acted out the games Vietnamese children play, plus another dragon dance. The encore was performed by our own children! They sang the song they had learned during one of their workshops in Vietnamese! What a fabulous closing to the day.

Sunday brought kite flying for the children. They made and decorated their own kites to fly in the picnic area. The adults were treated to an incredible presentation by LeAnn Thieman. She told her story of her involvement in Operation Babylift. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

The weekend was over so quickly! What a fantastic weekend! If you were there you know what I mean, if you weren’t there…come next year and experience it for yourself! They have already set the date for next year so start planning now. It will be August 9, 10, 11, 2001. I highly recommend that everyone attend. It is a unique opportunity for you and your children to share a weekend filled with everything Vietnamese.

Published 2000; “Adopt Vietnam”

Bat Trang

The artistry of Bat Trang is well known throughout Vietnam for its beautiful ceramics that have been created for over 700 years. Vases of the finest quality have graced the homes of aristocracy, rice bowls have held the food of the farmer, and electricity goes across the country using Bat Trang insulators. Young men, in expressing the strength of their love for a woman, promise to build a home from Bat Trang bricks.

Thanh Hoa potters founded Bat Trang sometime in the late 15th century. They came for the rich deposits of white clay (now exhausted) that was the hallmark of Bat Trang ceramics. Bat Trang is geographically well suited near the Hong River (Red River) and within a short distance of Ha Noi, the capital of Vietnam. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Bat Trang’s ceramics were of the highest quality, and vigorously sought after. Many of these pieces included the date and signature of the potter. This zest to own a piece of Bat Trang only lasted until the early 18th century when China re-established its export market overshadowing Bat Trang.

Today, Bat Trang is once again a blooming market. The narrow dirt roads buzz with activity; every nook and cranny overflows with wares for sale; every mode of transportation is laden with baskets filled with ceramics of every kind destined for Ha Noi. The dike road to the village is busy with motorbikes, bicycles, trucks and pedestrians. The drive to the village from Ha Noi is a mere 12km, but it takes a solid 30 minutes of weaving through traffic and pedestrians.

Once in the village signs of the ancient traditions of manufacturing are immediate with brick walls filled with drying fuel patties. Nearly 80 percent of the 1200 kilns that fire ceramics still use the same fuel patties that have been in use since the founding of the village. These black patties are a mixture of coal powder, wood, and water. Crafters form it into a round ball and press it onto a brick wall to dry. Hand printed fuel discs fill walls with a tapestry of design and beauty.

Although a machine mixes the clay itself, the molds are hand poured. Heat is added to the larger pieces in order for them to set in the high humidity. Craftsmen will drop a fire pot down into these larger vessels to promote quick setting. Once set, the pieces are carefully removed from the mold and the final touches begin. All the seams that appear from the mold are smoothed with the touch of a hand. When small details are added (such as a tail of a snake or the head of a dragon) they are attached carefully with slip.

Each piece is painted with quick flowing strokes of blues, greens, and reds, which are the trademark of Bat Trang. Design motifs include turtles, fish, dragons, floral scrolls, and landscapes, which bring a mundane bowl to the level of art. The artist holds the brush with a delicate hand allowing the paint to flow into the clay. The workspace is spotless reflecting the care put into the painting of each piece whether it is a simple rice bowl or an ornate incense burner. Once finished the pieces are set aside to dry before firing. After drying, ceramic boxes are filled to capacity then stacked high. Fuel patties line the sides of the boxes, plus the entire stack of ceramics as well. It can take up to three days to prepare for a firing. Once ready, the patties are set ablaze and the fires begin their 3-day burn. Because the temperatures cannot be exact, each firing produces a slight variation in color and quality from the last.

After the oven cools, each piece is carefully removed from its encasement and inspected for flaws or damage. If an item is less than ideal, but there is no obvious damage, it will go to the general marketplace for sale. If a high quality product comes from an especially successful firing, it will be set aside for the higher market.

There are a few businesses that have made the costly switch from coal to gas fired kilns. Gas kilns are not only cleaner to burn, but they also reduce firing time to less than 15 hours. The high temperatures combined with consistent heat produce only high quality pieces. These are available only for export or at exclusive shops in Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City.

The beauty and artistry of each piece is in the eyes of the creator, and it is no wonder that Bat Trang families have been dedicated to the art of ceramics for generations. Artists throughout the centuries have toiled over the clay until it is perfect, and couples have professed their love for one another over Bat Trang bricks. This dedication and love for the craft will continue to keep Bat Trang as an important part of Vietnamese history and art.

Published on 9/5/01 – “Things Asian”

Vietnam: A Destination

Vietnam is a destination. The reasons for travel to this wonderfully complex country very, for us, it was for our son, Cody Luong. This emotional adventure began 1996 when my husband and I made the decision to adopt our second child rather than going at it the traditional way. Our first step was to contact Jefferson County Social Services in Colorado. Our intent was to adopt a child at least 2 years old, but younger than our daughter who was 4 at the time. After classes, applications, paperwork, and an intensive homestudy, the county denied our application. What a heart-wrenching thing to hear! Our first reaction; “Are we not good parents?” After many months of soul searching we found that the county was right in their decision. Our application was declined because of the strain a “system” child puts on a family and our family would have suffered had they placed a child with us.

Our next step was with a private agency. Adoption Alliance in Aurora was our choice of agencies. Our initial meeting was to become acquainted and determine what our goal was in the adoption. We wanted a child from the US but we were too old (if you consider 40 old). Our wait would be at least 6 years and then there were no guarantees we would receive a child. Foreign adoption was our only choice if we wanted to have our family together within a short time.

There are many countries that have many children in need of a home, but we could only choose one country and one child. After much research we chose Vietnam. Again, we did paperwork, a homestudy, and the dossier for Vietnam, police background checks, and classes.

In Thai Nguyen, Vietnam, a little boy was born on November12, 1997 to a woman who could not raise him. She already had two children and her husband had died. This child would become our son. We received word about him in December of 1997, along with a photograph and medical profile. From this sketchy information we had to make the decision that would change our lives (and his) forever. Yes, we accepted the referral and began the longest, hardest 6 months of our lives!

There was still more paperwork both here and abroad, but we spent most of our time waiting. There was little or no communication from Vietnam concerning our son. Where was he? How was his health? Was he in an orphanage or foster care? Was he still near Ha Noi? Was he back in Thai Nguyen? The lack of information was excruciating. I began searching the internet for information, sending E-mails to everyone and anyone I could find, including the embassy in Ha Noi. All of these things made the wait less painful, but no shorter.

We finally reached the day that every foreign adoptive family awaits, a travel date! We would be leaving for Ha Noi, Vietnam on June 10, 1998, nearly a year since we first stepped into Adoption Alliance’s office. Now the scramble was underway to get our visas, and airline tickets, plus wind things up at work and school. We had 2 weeks to get ready for a trip of a lifetime.

We arrived in Vietnam on the morning of June 13, 1998. Stepping off the plane was like walking into a steam sauna fully dressed. The heat and humidity were nothing like we had ever experienced! We now know that 103( Fahrenheit and 95% humidity makes for a very wet day. After whisking through customs and loading onto vans we, and 10 other families, went to 2 hotels in the heart of old town Ha Noi. The smells, the noise, and the people filled our senses to capacity.

We had only a few hours rest then aroused and hurriedly sent to the lobby of the hotel where they were unloading 11 beautiful bundles of joy! What a happy day! We were exhausted, yet so happy, very much like the day I gave birth to our daughter nearly 5 years before. Our son was laid in my arms dressed only in a Tweety-bird T-shirt with his eyes taking in everything; he was 7 months and one day old. Physically, he was beautiful! He was healthy. What more could new parents ask for!

Our stay in Ha Noi lasted 2 weeks. We saw all that we could see and bought all that we could carry. We visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, temples, pagodas, the zoo, the art museum, the literature museum, the ethnology museum, a ceramics village, and the city where our son was born. The people all stopped to talk and say “Hello” in their best English. They touched our hair, felt our skin, and took pictures of their children with ours. We did more paperwork.

The 2 weeks passed faster than a speeding train, but our son was with us. Our last steps in this adventure of adoption were to get him through immigrations in Bangkok then home for the adoption to be filed in the United States. On January 19, 1999, our son, who was born Dang Van Luong, became Cody Luong Scrimgeour for the rest of his life.

Today, our family of four is complete. We now wait for the day we can make Vietnam a destination again to show our son where he was born and spent the first 7 months of his life.

Published on 9/5/01 “ThingsAsian”

Dragons Across the Water

The boats skim smoothly across the water as a drummer sets the cadence. Oars push the boat headlong through the water at speeds exceeding four meters per second. Over the past 2000 years, Dragon Boat Racing has spread across the world.

Hidden in legend and folklore is the origin of the race, but the common tale is the tragic legend of Qu Yuan (c. 340 to 278 B.C.) born in China during a time of great political changes. He was well liked by the people and, at one time, was a minister to the king. After falling from favor, he was expelled from his position. He wandered the countryside writing poetry and lamenting the state of his home. His despair grew to a point that he could no longer go on, and, while grasping a large rock, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned. In a desperate attempt to prevent the fish from consuming his body, the people raced out to the spot Qu Yuan vanished and began hitting the water with their oars and throwing glutinous rice balls into the water.

Since this tragic beginning, the Tuen Ng Festival (held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month) has become a riotous event. In Hong Kong, it is a national holiday rivaled only by the New Year. Dragon Boating events have been held throughout China and South East Asia for over 2000 years, and have spread through the rest of the world like wildfire in a short 20 years. The 4th International Dragon Boat Race held in Philadelphia, PA hosted over 2,000 participants from 22 countries.

Each boating team is made of 20 members sitting in pairs including a drummer and a steersman. The drummer beats the pace for the oarsmen and women. Dipping their oars into the water with precision and timing will bring the team to the finish line in less than 3 minutes on a 650-meter course.

Designed in the form of a dragon, each boat has a head at the bow and a tail at the stern. They range in size from 12 to 27 meters in length (most today are 12 meters) and weigh over 1500 pounds. The head and tail are attached to each hull only during the festival, and kept out of the weather the rest of the year. Once attached, a Taoist Priest awakens the dragon by dotting its eyes with red paint. All the while, firecrackers explode and incense burns insuring the blessing of the Gods.

On shore, patrons cheer each team on while feasting on Zongzi. Zongzi is a traditional dish representative of the rice balls that the people threw into the river to distract the fish from Qu Yuan’s body. It is made of glutinous rice, ham, beans, bean paste, and vegetables, all wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Dragon Boat Racing is an event to see first hand. To witness this tradition is to see two thousand years of history come to life.

Originally published in “ThingsAsian”

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