Thursday, September 28, 2006

Putting it Off

Through the years, as I've gone to writer's conferences, I've learned how to answer the delicate question of, "What do you write?" The two possible answers are speculative fiction and erotica. I get the same horrified expression for both, but when I say erotica, people tend to move to another table. But this weekend I'll be in the world of speculative fiction, and I can let my inner geek hang out.

I'm on two panels for Conjecture this year. Thank goodness they always put me on the bawdy late night panel. It doesn't always start off on the topic of sex, but we can read our midnight audience pretty well and soon boldly go where no earlier panel has gone before.

I'm also on the writing track this year, which is wonderful. Last year, I was one of three published authors sitting in on round table critiques. Reading chapters, writing a detailed critique, and then holding a critique session in person is a lot of work, so I'm glad they aren't doing them again this year and instead went to panels.

The panel I was assigned was Overcoming Writer's Block. I rarely suffer from writer's block, but writer's procrastination is another story. Considering that I have the high score on every computer game in the house, I consider myself an expert at avoiding writing. I have two chapters due to my own critique group this weekend, but am I working on them? Let's just say that my Cubis score has never been higher.

Writer's block, to me, is not being able to create a story. I have no problem with that. There are so many stories in my head - some have been there for years - that I always have something I could be working on. My problem is having something to write but not doing it. What stops me? Different things. Sometimes it's simply a difficult chapter to write. Deeply emotional scenes are physically hard on me. While it takes a reader twenty minutes to read, it takes me weeks to write, and if it's a downer scene, then I'm in a funk that whole time. Sometimes I put off writing because I'm waiting for something to click in that scene and I don't want to waste time putting down words I know I'll delete. Other times I feel that I'm at diverging paths in the story, and I need to get some distance from what I'm writing so that I can see clearly the path that will take me where I need to go.

Recognizing the reasons why I'm not writing is only part of the solution. Finding ways around it are a bit harder. I have my tricks, like skipping scenes ahead to something that grabs me, or simply being very stern with myself, or takign a break to write a short story, but they don't always work. So even though I'm on the panel, I'm hoping to take away some ideas.

Meanwhile - I have those chapters to polish... right after I add a couple thousand points to my Cubis score.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In the Canyons

LA has been described many ways - usually by people who hate it - but here's my version: LA is like a large Japanese teahouse. Each community, each industry, each ethnic group, is a room. While you're in one, you're vaguely aware that the others exist, but it isn't until you wander the hallways that you get glimpses into these other universes that co-exist in time and space with yours. When you meet someone, you connect to all the other universes they touch, and you are their bridge to your worlds. The trick is to keep roaming the hallways and making those connections - because they can transport you to entire galaxies you never guessed existed without ever taking you out of LA.

Last Saturday, I was invited to a party in the hills south of Pasadena. It's been years since I've been into those canyons. It is a different world. A different LA.

In the canyon, at what I hoped was the right place, I found modest sign beside a nearly invisible flight of stairs. After a moment of doubt, I climbed the stairs and found myself on a steep, winding trail that supposedly lead to a house. The trail was lit by dim tubing, and halfway up (at least I hoped I was halfway up by then) I started wondering if perhaps it was a practical joke. There were some scary drop-offs from the side, and no handrail - a good reminder to be sober when I came back down the trail. A couple turn-backs later, around thick California underbrush, I found a house.

I'd met one of the hosts at the Hollywood Book Fair. He's been a music critic and the editor of a fitness magazine. Other guests included a singer, several poets, and some academics who also write, in their words, "Everything." This is the artistic side of LA, a side I seldom get to see. The movie industry overwhelms all the other arts, but they are here. This time I got lucky and looked into the right room of the teahouse at the right time.

It was fun to sit on the floor and drink wine while people read poetry to me, or sang, or offered a performance art work-in-progress. Creative people have such energy around them and I soak it in. Writers I love most, but all arts feed other arts, so it's good to connect with the creators of other artistic worlds and get a new perspective on the world - theirs and mine.

I need to keep an eye out for this niche and delve into it more often. It's probably everywhere around me. I just need to be more receptive to the signs. Or maybe I'll get lucky and friends will keep pointing to narrow trails leading to the hidden houses where artistic LA lives.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Near Truth

The past year has been hard on truth. So many literary fakes have been exposed. The tales of JT Leroy, James Frey, and Kaavya Viswanathan made for interesting reading, but they also pointed out how publishers sell the writer's persona, not the book, nowadays, something I hate. The work is the only thing that matters. Of course, when the deception is exposed, the publishers throw up their hands and say, "We were duped! We're victims here." Uh-huh. Sob into those book sales figures, hon.

Recently, a new poster appeared on a forum I read regularly. She claimed to have breast cancer. The sad saga went on for about two months, with lapses explained away as emergency trips to the hospital. I'm a suspicious person, so I didn't get involved in her story, but many of the forum jumped right in with advice and offers to help. Over time, though, she got a little sloppy about her details. (Note to self: when carrying out some sick minded prank, keep damn good notes. Second note to self: Figure out how people make a buck off these hoaxes. There's no other reason to put that much energy into a lie.) One month she was married and had kids, the next, she was all alone in the world. When some of the less credulous forum members linked up all the inconsistencies and confronted her, she came on under a different name, proclaimed herself a close friend, and posted an obituary culled from the local newspaper. It didn't match up with any of the other info posted, but what the heck, right? Besides, a good corpse is hard to find on short notice. The forum was not amused.

Which brings me to The Night Listener. I read Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City last year. It was probably revolutionary when it was first published, but I shrugged. Every time people swore what a great writer Maupin was, I smiled, nodded, and changed the subject. Even writers I normally trust couldn't convince me to give him another try. Then someone on the forum brought up the book in a conversation about the breast cancer hoax and I thought, well, it's only two days out of my life to read it, give it a shot. Now I'm glad I did.

Everything Maupin said about being a writer made me nod in recognition. I loved the way the main character Gabriel needs to believe in Pete. Most of all, I loved the anger he felt when people around him brought doubt and doses of reality into the fantasy, and the way Gabriel kept searching for new ways to keep the faith. That was so real. That's the way people are. Bringing that kind of truth to the reader is the mark of a truly great book. So I'm highly recommending The Night Listener. Oh, I see you rolling your eyes. Maybe Tales of the City wasn't for you, but trust me on this one. It's the truth. (send me a buck?)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

How Small is the World?

A couple days ago, I saw a news flash about a military coup in Thailand.

As much as I hate what's happening in the US right now - the stealth war on the First Amendment, the overt war against gays - and what the US is doing to the rest of the world - how many civilian Iraqis have died? - I fully appreciate that I can take for granted the peaceful transition of power following an election. Not so in other countries. As much as you might debate the outcome of the first election that let W get his grubby little hands on power (don't get me started), when we have an election, the results matter. Even when the party in power loses, all they do is pitch a fit. They don't send tanks into the street and nullify the outcome.

One of my editors lives in Thailand. As soon as I read about the coup, I shot off an email to her in the hopes that she still had internet access. I had no idea what I could do for her if she was in danger, but I had to at least offer. I also alerted our writing list. She got many concerned emails. As it turns out, she was a lot calmer about the situation than I was. Sort of took it in stride.

I'm grateful for the internet for a lot of reasons, but this ability to reach beyond borders out to people I know - if only through the internet - is wonderful. It makes the world smaller, more personal, and reminds me how interconnected we can be.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Fifth Conjecture

I'll be at the Fifth Conjecture Science Fiction Convention in San Diego Sept. 29 - Oct. 1.

This year's theme is women in science fiction, so I'll be sure to wear my Mary Shelley "Who's Your Mama?" t-shirt. It looks as if I may also man (woman?) a table for Broad Universe, which is a list for female science fiction writers and their fans.

Another BroadU list member will be there, and she's talking about getting a time slot for a reading. I'm not so sure how I feel about that. I suppose you could call Red By Any Other Name and Kells horror stories, Orbiting In Retrograde science fiction, Candy Conversation Hearts paranormal, and Sex Karma and She Comes Stars speculative fiction, but Conjecture doesn't feel like the right venue to be reading those. If this other writer gets a time slot, I think I'll take a hint from my t-shirt and read from the book that started it all: Frankenstein.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Amazing Day

I went to the West Hollywood book fair today. Ran into friends who I expected to see - D. Travers Scott and Trebor Healey - and met some people I didn't expect to.

The person I really wanted to see was Stuart Timmons. I met him at a poetry reading a month ago and got very interested in the book he had coming out. Stuart (with Lillian Faderman) wrote Gay LA., A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. L.A. Always seems like a city without history, so I was looking forward to reading about L.A. history in general. I will read it soon and post a review.

Other people I met -

Ali Leibgott. Her The Beautifully Worthless is just the most amazing piece of work. I was so thrilled to tell her that in person.

Jim Tushinski. I told him how much I enjoyed Van Allen's Ecstasy.

Fiona Zedde was a pleasant surprise. After hearing so much buzz about her, it was nice to see that it wasn't hype. I like smart women. I may pick up her book.

Max Pierce's Master of Seacliff isn't coming out for a couple months, but I'm hearing really good advance word on it.

And the surprise of the day - Tony Valenzuela. He contributed to Inside Him also, so I introduced myself as a fellow writer. If we find someone else in L.A., maybe we'll do a reading, but we didn't talk very long about it. At least he's aware that I'm around.

It was a very hot day. We melted. Still, it was everything I like in a day - hanging with writers and celebrating written word.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oh, I Get It, It's a Profit Deal!

I saw this headline on yahoo news: New prize for unpublished manuscripts, so of course I had to read the story.

I'm not big on writing contests, but I have entered a very few. Randy haiku on Good Vibes, the Rock Me Baby contest on Clean Sheets, and the typewriter contest on Desdmonas.Com. I've placed well, but honestly, I did it so that my name would appear on more Google searches. (Not a problem now, but when I started writing, I wanted my name out there.)

It's not germane to my writing, but my degree is in finance, with an emphasis on monetary theory. The finance degree allows me to make a living where my writing doesn't. Since graduating though, I have evoked the terms "velocity of money" and "money multipliers" only twice. Both times, I used them to point out to art divas that all profit is not evil, despite their starry-eyed Kum By Yah philosophies. (At that point, the discussion went right over their sanctimonious heads and they resorted to spouting more art diva "feed my inner muse" crap.)

The point here is that I'm not anti-profit. How profit is earned, and what's done with it are different matters, but profit in itself isn't good or evil. It's the reason why we bother to get out of bed in the morning.

But since I am a financial type, the first thing I did was throw some numbers into a spread sheet and have a look at this contest. Hmmm. The payout - $100,000 to the winner, $25,000 to second place, $10,000 to runner up, and $7,000 in other prizes, - adds up to $142,000 in expenses, assuming no administrative overhead, PR costs, etc.
A maximum of 50,000 manuscripts will be accepted, at $85 a pop for an entry fee.

He probably won't get 50,000 entries, but there are a lot of desperate writers out there. If he does get all 50,000, his income is $4,250,000. Minus the cost of prizes, he walks away with $4,108,000 profit. All he promises is that:"As the winners' agent, we will nurture them, introduce them to publishers and negotiate the best deal for them," Shomron said.

That doesn't mean you'll be published. It only means you'll have an agent.

You know, for $4,108,000, even minus the taxes, I could start one hell of a small press. For 4 million dollars, I could have a print-on-demand house print your book, slap a sticker on it with the name of my small press, distribute it for free, and still have money to hire a sexy cabana boy for my new swimming pool (outside my new McMansion).

But what if he doesn't get 50,000 manuscripts? What if there are only 45,000 desperate writers with $85 to blow on a shot at $100,000? Profit of over 3.6 million. Even at 1/10th of his limit, 5,000 entries, he clears $283,000 after expenses. Not too shabby. How much do you earn per year? His break even point, by the way, is 1,671 entries (leaving $35 dollars of profit.)

Come to think of it.... where's my spread sheet? Let's think of this as a lottery with an $85 ticket price with a 1 in 50,000 shot at winning the $100,000 top prize. If you were to enter 1,000 manuscripts, and you won, you'd walk away with a profit of $6,500 before taxes. I doubt your entry fees would be tax deductible as expenses, so you'd probably want to max out at 600 entries, which would leave you a tidy after-tax profit of $24,500. Not bad. Is that more in the range of your annual take home pay? Probably. Purely on the odds, if 50,000 people enter, you have a one in 83 chance of winning. But if only 1671 do, your chances pop up to 1 in 2.78. That's better than the California lotto! And hey, with this guy as your agent, you might even possibly sell the book to a real publisher and make a couple thousand on top of that. Sweet.

Who's in?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

This Just Added

Trebor Healey sent this announcement to me:

Hope you can stop by and see us if you're at the fair. I'll be reading from my new poetry book, Sweet Son of Pan.

dennis gill healey kearns
mac kinnon valenzuela vavasseur

q u e e r renegades

weho book fair

robertson salon
sunday sept 17
spread the word

Sunday, September 10, 2006

West Hollywood Book Fair

I'm looking forward to this coming Sunday and the West Hollywood Book Fair. Friend D. Travers Scott (One of These Things Is Not Like The Other, contributor to the comic The Book Of Boy Trouble) is on a panel with wunderkind GBLT writer Fiona Zedde and the talented Jim Tushinski (his Van Allen's Ecstay was very good.)

There are a lot of great panels, many for speculative fiction and comics, so I'm having to make hard choices between panels I'll attend. That will get tossed out the window when I meet up with some of the writers I've promised to meet. And that plan will probably change if I run into Trebor Healey (Sweet Son of Pan, Through It Came Bright Colors). My only non-negotiable panel is titled Legacies: Word from Legendary LGBT Authors because Stuart Timmons will be on it. I met Stuart at a reading at Skylight Books by Justin Chin (Attack of the Man Eating Lotus Blossom) and Trebor. Even though I didn't have much of a chance to talk to him, I was impressed. He has a book coming out on the gay history of LA - titled Gay L.A: A History of Social Vagrants, Hollywood Rejects, and Lipstick Lesbians, that is on my must read list when it's released.

Even though this book fair is in WeHo, GBLT writers are (sadly) only a small part of the offerings. If you live in LA, and you love books, check it out. You intrepid reporter will, of course, blog about it, but that's nothing like being there.

Now all I have to do is figure out how I'm going to lug around all the books I know I'm going to buy.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Murk In The Middle of the Novel

Two years ago at Saints and Sinners, I went to a master class taught by Jim Grimsley titled: The Murk In The Middle Of The Novel. I don't think there's a better word than murk to describe how muddled things get when you're two months and ten chapters into a novel. Or as I'm now visualizing it - the forest for the trees.

Writing is sort of like hiking. For most people, the destination is where they begin mentally. "I want to get to this place. How do I get there?" Next they find the trailhead, the place where the path begins. Then they start to hike. The problems arise along the way when the trees close in. It's easy to loose sight of both the beginning and the end.

Referring to my notes from the class, Jim mentioned that one of the problems of writing a novel is that you can't hold the whole novel in your head the same way you can a short story. Exactly! You have to pay attention to where you are while keeping the destination in mind, but there's no room in the brain for the minute details of the entire path. Jim also reminded us that the only direction is forward. Every sentence has to move the story towards the end. No scenic routes, no interesting but useless asides, no looping back stories - just keep moving towards the end.

So where the hell am I?

I knew the story I wanted to tell, which means I began with a clear destination in mind.

Finding the trailhead was tricky. I wrote (and discarded) at least 7,000 words before I knew the best time frame for the story. But once I stumbled on the right opening, the pacing fell into place.

Everything flowed so well the first several chapters. I was in the zone. My vision of my destination was still clear in my mind, and I knew I'd chosen the best beginning.

After that, things began to bog down. I hit the murk.

I realized that I'd packed too much, and plot was weighing me down. Time to rummage through the story and discard everything that was nice, but not essential. If it didn't focus on the MC, I chucked it. If it didn't move me forward, I deleted it. Painful, yes, but essential. Out in the middle of the wilderness, it's survival of the fittest, baby. Only a streamlined, unencumbered story can go the distance.

There are writers who believe in beginning a story with no exact destination in mind. They simply head out into the wilderness with blind faith that if they wander around long enough they will eventually stumble onto a story. "It's out here," they mumble, "I'm bound to pass it." They call themselves organic writers. I believe that if you have no idea where you're headed, you won't recognize your destination even if you should, by some miracle or sheer dumb luck, run into it 250,000 words later. It seems so inefficient. (This from the person who wrote 7,000 words before she knew where to start.)

Then there's the opposite side of the coin - the outliners. They plan out each step of the journey before the first step. The problem there is the lack of flexibility. If you march along and never deviated from plan, you can miss some cool, unexpected stuff along the way, like themes your subconscious weaves into the story that only jump out at you during the rewrite. It also assumes that you planned everything perfectly from the start, and no surprises will happen (such as having to dump scads of secondary characters and side plots).

Usually, I have a mental outline, but I keep it very flexible. If it isn't on paper, it can't be set in stone. This time, I put down general plot points and pacing notes in chapter order in my working document, sort of as a head's up of where I needed to go next. It wasn't a full outline, but at least it was a decent map that gave me some idea of the terrain I'd be passing.

As I flounder around in the murk, I realize that the sequence of events needs to change so that I have a steady emotional uphill climb to the end, with a few plateaus to give myself and the readers a chance to absorb the view and catch our breath. But no matter what, I'm keeping my eye on the destination. I'm not letting it move to suit the path. I'm forcing the path to stay on target to the destination.

Now all I have to do is find my way out of the murk and move forward. The end is in sight. Only four more chapters to go! At least I know I can get there from here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mixed Feelings

Zane is a fabulously popular black erotica writer who is fast becoming a cottage industry for ethnic erotica. She put out a call for submissions for short stories for a new erotic anthology titled Caramel Flava, which was to feature Hispanic, Latino, and/or brown main characters. Many writers were put off by the tone of the call for submissions. I was too, but damn if I didn't think of a story, Tomorrow's Saints, so I submitted it. Writer friend Teresa Lamai also submitted something. As far as I know (or anyone would confess) we were the only two from the Erotica Readers and Writer's Association lists who did.

Later, Teresa happily reported that her story was accepted. We all did a happy dance for her as the pay rate for Flava is better than most anthologies, the number of copies being printed approaches a mainstream release, Zane's name has enough power to put those books on the tables at the entrance of a bookstore, and the book might even grab a coveted "featured" display.

Since I didn't receive an acceptance letter, I assumed my story was rejected. Writing rejection letters might not be fun for editors, but it's part of their job, damn it. Was I supposed to wait until I saw it in a bookstore to find out- nearly a year later- when I could have been submitting that story to other publishers? That seems to be the general idea. It truly angers me that some editors treat writers with such disregard. (Which is why I'm usually so careful about who I submit to. Every editor I've worked with so far I'd happily work with again, even some who have rejected stories.)

As I said, I assumed my story was rejected, but to make sure, I sent an email and mailed a formal letter requesting the status of my story. They never bothered to answer. Another serious breach of professional manners. Ugh. So I put them on my "Do Not Submit To In The Future" list. End of story, right? Nope.

A couple months ago I got an email telling me that my story was being seriously considered for Flava II. They didn't ask if it was still available, or if I had any interest in letting them publish it. As irritated as I was, because of the positives listed above, I bit my tongue and decided to wait to see what happened. Strangely enough, Teresa Lamai got the same email. She commented that she thought they had her story in Flava I, but apparently not.

Last night, Teresa posted a comment to the list that she'd received copies of Flava I and her story was in it after all. But - I'm cringing for her - they edited grammatical errors into the first two paragraphs of her story. This is a serious problem. We writers only get a paragraph or two to grab our readers. If the work is unreadable, the reader moves on. While Zane's reputation rests on the sales of several books, Teresa's professional reputation is on the line with that one story - a reputation that the editor working for Zane's publisher damaged. And the insane part is that it's a sin of commission, not omission. The editor changed Teresa's words from beautiful to illiterate. It was done on purpose by people who supposedly know their way around a copy of Strunk & White's.

I'm seriously considering withdrawing my story from submission. These people have not impressed me with their professionalism, and now I fear what they might do to my story. Since they have yet to respond to a letter from me, I doubt they'd notice a formal withdrawal from consideration though. The other choice is to red-line the contract (if I get one) so that I have final say over edits. That won't make me popular with the publisher, but at least it will save me the humiliation Teresa is facing.

By the way - Teresa's story will also be in next year's Mammoth Book of Erotica which is edited by Maxim Jakubowski. I suggest you wait to read it there, where it will appear in it's original, unmutilated, form.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Pere Lachaise

I'm writing about my travels out of the order that they went in, so it seems appropriate that the last entry I plan to make is about our first day.

We got to our hotel five hours before we could check in. As is our usual habit, we checked the bags, and went out to scout the city. Instead of wandering aimlessly, I had a destination in mind. It didn't look at far on the map. I should have checked the scale. An hour later, we found the front gates of Pere Lachaise cemetery.

(Some images from the cemetery before my camera died)

There were many gravesites I wanted to visit. Proust, Balzac, Isodora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Chopin, Seurat... After climbing the first two hills, which were quite steep, the SO admitted that he didn't care to see Oscar Wilde's final resting place. I went on alone. Near Victor Noir's rather well endowed memorial, an older man walked alongside me and talked. My brain was mush from the trip, and my very limited French is atrocious, so I wondered if I should even try to tell him that I didn't understand a word he was saying. Finally, I decided I had to. Apparently, I'm more charming in French then I am in English. Either that, or he has a thing for jet-lagged, unshowered, rumpled women who hike around graveyards. Whatever. I was a little relieved when I finally lost him.

Oscar Wilde's gravestone was a trip. If you go to the Pere Lachiase website, you can see the art deco carving on the top of the monument, but what they don't show is the four feet of smooth granite below it which is covered, on all four sides, with lip prints. Absolutely covered. Unfortunately, my camera died before I got to it, so I don't have my own pictures. I didn't even get a shot of Jim Morrison's unimpressive memorial stone, which I would have missed if it hadn't been for the goth chick in red fishnets leaning against a nearby family tomb.

I found the SO alseep on a bench in the middle of the cemetery, right where I'd left him. We hiked back to the hotel, and even though we were there a little bit before check-in, they took pity on us and let us into the room. I have to say, every person we dealt with in Paris was very helpful, sometimes above and beyond the call of duty, and reasonably friendly. We did mind our French manners - greeting waiters and clerks as soon as we entered a place, and always starting off speaking French - but no one was rude. That being said, I probably won't go back. Italy, however... I'm counting the days until I can get back to Rome.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Good Luck Charms

I must have a natural homing instinct for these kinds of things. Our tour guide in Pompeii never mentioned the proliferation of penis carvings outside buildings, but I found quite a few. It turned into a scavenger hunt for me, which made the whole Pompeii experience much more entertaining. Since our tour guide pretended not to hear my question about the carvings, I had to look up information when we got home. A penis was a good luck charm, (No doubt. Being female in those days sucked.), or to ward off evil (Beware, I wield the dick of death!).

I wondered if these also served as directional arrows. (Hangs right, straight to head - er - ahead.)

Oh look- wine, penises, and food! Talk about a full service restaurant. Or maybe it was a craftsman's shop. The finest in goblets, cutlery, and cock.

I know that the Romans loved their erotic art, and during the excavation of Pompeii, archeologist found quite a bit. We asked our surly tour guide where we could view some of the collection. (Many of the adults on the tour sidled close to hear her answer, but tried very hard to act as if they weren't listening. Pussies.)After giving us a withering glance, she curtly told us that it was housed outside of the main area in a building that was only open on the weekends. Curses! Foiled! I would have liked to have seen prancing Priapus and satyrs knocking it out with nymphs. That was probably my only chance. I don't think I'll ever go to Pompeii again. It was interesting, and worth the visit, but it was touristy as hell, hot, muggy, and I broke out in hives from the volcanic ash in the dust. It isn't a true vacation unless I have a violent allergic reaction to something. I guess I should have brought along my penis good luck charm to ward off evil dust devils.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Past My Comfort Zone

Obviously, I like to travel. I'd rather have experiences than things, which is good, because the hovel is stuffed to the rafters with books, and there's no room for anything else.

The best thing about travel, especially outside the US, is the way it forces me past comfort zones. Going to a grocery store in Rome is not the same as a trip in the US, and the one in Rome is completely different from the one in Paris. I can't take anything for granted. In a small Italian town, they wanted us to put on plastic gloves before handling the fruits and veggies. In another town, we weren't even allowed to touch the stuff until we bought it. In France, we had to weigh everything in the produce section and put price stickers on it before going to the checkout.

Being forced to rethink every small detail of daily life is a great hands-on lesson in point of view. Some people find that unnerving and get angry - huffing about how "they do it all wrong here." That defensive attitude makes learning from the experience impossible. You have to be open to it. Not comfortable, simply open. When I'm pushed past my comfort zones, my heightened awareness makes time seem to slow and everything takes on a ritualistic feel. I have to concentrate on the process. I have to be more observant.

It's a humbling experience to realize that you, not them, may be the one doing it all wrong- for that place. There is no one right way to do anything. There are many ways. Accept that, and it's a whole new world, even when you get back into your comfort zone.