My Favorite Inscriptions

After the Artesia Library author talk on March 22, I changed my profile photo on my author page on Facebook to this one. I was signing a copy for a member of the audience named Eddie – a name which, for some reason, has always been very dear to me! I described it as “the best first name ever,” but Edward is not my favorite boy’s name. My favorite boy’s name is my favorite boy’s name.

Facebook author photo

I had considered cropping the photo so that the book doesn’t show, but it was looking awkward as a thumbnail so I left the book in. After I had updated my Facebook profile, it occurred to me that someone might be curious to know what I had written in the inscription. This they could discover by rotating the image and enlarging it, but then it occurred to me that this person might be curious to know about my other inscriptions. Judging by the popularity of this blog, I’m guessing there’s only one such person, which is why I must indulge their curiosity by disclosing some of the inscriptions I have written since Pioneer Boulevard was released on June 29 last year.

The following is a partial list – and much as I love wordplay, I don’t mean the list I am partial to. I am grateful to have a book to write inscriptions in and I like every inscription I have written. This list only includes what I think of as the Magnificent Seven.

To a Friend
Some months prior to publication I began to share with friends that I had decided to publish my manuscript through Consonant Books. They were all happy for me, and one of them, whom I told over the phone, sounded ecstatic. “I can’t wait to read the book and get your autograph!” he exclaimed. (As a doctor, Sanjeev normally speaks in what I describe in “Nectar of Life” as “that straightforward, unruffled manner in which doctors treat birth, death, and everything in between,” so the emotion in his voice spoke volumes.) Before we hung up Sanjeev said I must let him know when he could buy the book, but since he has given me medical help worth several hundred copies of Pioneer Boulevard, I had already decided to give him a copy. It bore this inscription:

Because you said you couldn’t wait to get my autograph, this is the first copy I’m signing.

(It was.)

To my Mother
The most special copy of Pioneer Boulevard is the one I gave my mother. She unfortunately didn’t receive it until October, when a friend from Seattle was traveling to India, but I had known what I’d write in her copy even before the book was published. In the Acknowledgements I have thanked God for “the parents He gave me, who gave me (with life and other good things) the gift of literature.” Although I didn’t specify there which parent was responsible for nurturing my love for literature at considerable personal cost, I’ll do so here. It was Mummy. This is what I wrote in her copy:

In 1998 you gave me a novel in which you had written, “One day I will read a book by Sharon Edwards.” Thanks for believing in me, and sorry for the long wait.

The novel I was referring to is The God of Small Things, which remains my favorite novel by any Indian author. I had wanted to read it since it was released but couldn’t afford to buy it. I was on the library waitlist, but before my turn could arrive my mother had given me my own copy. The gift was more than a book. It represented all those trips to the library in childhood, all those birthday and Christmas gifts she’d sacrificed to buy me, simply to quench my thirst for books.

My thirst for books was never quenched; it only grew by the book. And it’s what has made me a writer. Which is why I owe as much to my mother as I do to my father (now in heaven), from whom I inherited my love for literature.

To my Godson
My godson Atish, who made me an aunt, was the only member of my family who could attend the book launch, and I suppose if I had to pick one member of my family to be present, I’d have picked him because he represents the younger generation. (I hope the legacy I leave will be far more than my writings.)

One of the happiest days of my life was the day Atish was born, and my heart has never been the same since I saw him for the first time, on a foggy December evening in Calcutta eleven days later. I thought I’d never be able to love any other child like I love him, but then he had a sister, and my heart expanded to include her. Nihara’s birth taught me that the heart cannot contract to make room for one more; it must expand. And so I love their younger cousins – Alita, Samaya, and Nihal – just as much as I love Atish and Nihara. In fact, as I have said in the Acknowledgements, I wear these five “in my heart’s core.” In the copy I gave Atish I wrote:

Thanks for the joy you have given me since the day you were born, and for giving me my favorite name.

When Atish was fourteen months his family moved to what was still called Bombay, which meant that I was at their place constantly. After trying to get him to call me Aunty Sharon for a couple weeks or so, I was overjoyed when one morning he looked directly at me and said “Ana.” Though a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, I wouldn’t have had him call me by any other name.

At Keele I met an Indian student who is the same age as Atish, and his name (Daniel) is Nihal’s middle name. So I thought of him as a nephew of sorts. I told him that my nephews and nieces call me Ana – and he said he calls his aunt that too! Indian kids don’t normally call their aunts Ana, and I was amused by the coincidence but decided that he was not to call me that. “There are only five people on earth who can call me Ana,” I said. To which he responded, “There’s only one person on earth I will call Ana.”

To my Mentor
In the book’s Acknowledgements I have referred to my two spiritual mentors as “the North Stars to my wandering bark,” which is more than a metaphor taken from Sonnet 116. I’d have been lost on the sea of troubles had these two gentlemen(tors) not shown me the way. For this I have said that they “deserve the kind of thanks I lack the words for. Maybe I’ll find them when I am a better writer, maybe Michael and Dale will have to wait until the mortal puts on immortality.”

This is what I wrote in the copy I gave Michael, to whom Pioneer Boulevard owes more than to anyone apart from my tutor:

With a gratitude words will never adequately express this side of eternity.

To my Tutor
Words will never adequately express the gratitude I owe my tutor, but I didn’t write that in the copy I sent Joe Stretch. He may not have killed me, but he would definitely have said, in that polite English accent of his, “What the hell do you mean words will never adequately express? You’re a writer, you bloody well ought to know how to make words express.”

In the first line of Joe’s paragraph in the Acknowledgements I have said that he “deserves more than a paragraph, he deserves a chapter” (and he’s a nice chap, really, when he isn’t yelling at me). So in his copy I wrote:

Someday I’ll write that chapter.

To my Second Reader
Tim Lustig, who is among the most well-read people and certainly one of the most perceptive readers I know, not only gave me invaluable feedback on the Pioneer Boulevard stories; he also helped me grow as a writer. My final portfolio for his Life Writing class is one of my favorite pieces of anything I have written. The copy I sent Tim bore this inscription:

The best second reader this book could have had, whose opinion about my writing will always be among those that matter most.

To a Reader
As I said, I like every inscription I have written because I am grateful to have a book to write inscriptions in. I am especially grateful when someone buys a copy at my author talks, and I try to give their inscription (if they want one) a personal touch.

After the Hastings Branch reading on January 7, a reader named Jerrine came up to buy a copy. She said she had read the library’s copy in one day and now wanted to own the book. During our chat she shared that she had recently moved to LA from the South to be closer to her daughter, so in her copy I wrote something that gave me immense pleasure as an immigrant Angeleno whose book has the city’s name on its cover:

Welcome to Los Angeles!

South Whittier Author Talk

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My Favorite Speech

The title refers to one of my own speeches. My favorite speech by someone else is the one Jawaharlal Nehru gave to the Indian Constituent Assembly shortly before independent India’s flag was unfurled for the first time on August 15, 1947. The speech has come to be known as “Tryst with Destiny,” because of the phrase in that famous first line:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

My favorite part is in that last sentence: “when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” India couldn’t have found a more eloquent utterance for its long suppressed soul. But while August 15, 1947 was indeed the day when an age ended, I am not sure that the land of my birth awoke to freedom that day, because I believe that freedom is much more than independence. Given how many of India’s most vulnerable citizens – women, children, the poor, the aged, the lower castes – are still being treated tells me that freedom is a ways away. 

My favorite of my own speeches is far less eloquent, but I agree with everything I’ve said! The following is an excerpt from that speech, which I gave at a Diwali function last November. (Even though the most recent Indian festival was Holi, the festival of color, I was telling friends about the Diwali event last night so I decided to publish this speech today instead of waiting until my birthday, which will be the eve of Diwali 2014.) 

Diwali is the most important holiday in the Indian calendar – and indeed, it is the start of the Indian calendar, the Indian new year. India is a country that enjoys celebrating festivals, and with so many religions represented, there is always a festival round the corner. Diwali is the most widely observed of all Indian festivals, celebrated even by non-Hindus.

Different regions of India have different stories associated with the origin of the festival, and for me, as a North Indian, the story that always comes to mind when I think of Diwali is Rama’s defeat of Ravana and his subsequent return to Ayodhya. According to this tradition, the festival gets its name from the rows of lamps that were lit to celebrate the return of the kingdom’s rightful ruler after 14 years in exile. The light in these lamps symbolizes not only joy and rejoicing, but also the victory of good over evil. And this victory of good over evil is at the heart of Diwali. It might a while for good to triumph over evil, just as it took 14 years for Rama to return from exile, but it is worth waiting for. It is worth hoping for, worth believing in.

As Indians we are very familiar with the adventures of Rama, but I wonder if the people who had seen Rama leave Ayodhya for exile believed that he would ever return? As the years went by, did they give up hope? There was no way of telling what might have happened to Rama or the two people who were with him: his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshmana. There were no cell phones back then. I am old enough to remember a world without cells phones, and an India with black-and-white TV. But there was no TV in Rama and Sita’s day, and no computers. Which meant no emails and – good heavens! – no Facebook! Rama could not post a status update for the friends back in Ayodhya, adding photos that they could like, comment about, and share with their friends. . . No, when you saw someone leave for exile in a forest, it might be the last time you’d see them.

Perhaps many of the Ayodhyans were disappointed when the months turned into years with no sign of Rama’s return. Did they begin to doubt that he would come back? Had he found a better country? Had he been killed? But for light to shine in darkness there must be faith. There must be hope. Those who steadfastly believed that Rama would return must have felt doubly joyful when they saw him: joyful because he was back, and joyful because they had not doubted. The return of Rama and Sita, when seen through the perspective of the Ayodhyans who had waited for this for 14 years, believing against all odds, represents the triumph of faith over doubt, of hope over despair.

If there is one request I can make this Diwali, I would encourage anyone who finds themselves in a difficult situation not to give in to despair. I urge you to continue to hope and believe that good will triumph over evil in the end – assuming, of course, that you don’t succumb to evil yourself. And evil often manifests itself in the unseen forms of despair, doubt, depression, and the like. I would also encourage you to see the situation as an opportunity. Rama’s exile into the forest for 14 years was not in itself a good thing, but he accepted it to honor his father, which was the right thing to do. He had probably never heard of the Ten Commandments, but he was instinctively following the one that says “Honor your father and mother that it may go well with you.” He honored his father, and it did go well with him. But for the people who had been left behind in Ayodhya, the long wait for Rama’s return was an opportunity to grow. I hope that many of them had good things to show him for the 14 years – new homes, thriving businesses, children who were doing well at school, at university.

Light is an apt metaphor for both these victories: of good over evil, and of hope over despair. Diwali, the festival of lights, is that time of year when all of India becomes bright with light: from the rows of diyas on the ground, to the lanterns hanging from ceilings and doorways, to the fireworks illuminating the night sky. Light represents joy and hope – and indeed it is a metaphor for God Himself, for God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.

Diwali Diyas

Since eating plays such an important role in Indian culture even at non-festive times, food obviously has a place of prominence during Diwali. Last week I posted a message on Facebook asking my friends what they like best about Diwali, and from the first response (“I love the sweets”), which came from one of my dearest childhood friends, Neeraja, it was pretty much all about food.

My only contribution to the list of goodies was boondi laddoo. I like boondi laddoo so much that I couldn’t resist making it the favorite sweet of Niteshbhai, one of the two protagonists of the title story of my book, Pioneer Boulevard: Los Angeles Stories.

“Pioneer Boulevard” has a special place in my heart for various reasons. For one thing, the word pioneer is a metaphor: the book is about immigrants, and immigrants are pioneers. The story is also special because it is set during India’s biggest festival, the one we are here to celebrate this evening.

Indians like to ring in the new year with the purchase of gold, but in “Pioneer Boulevard” Rhoda has come to Hema Jewelers to sell her wedding necklace because she needs the money. What follows is an exchange between her and Niteshbhai, the jeweler. It ends with Rhoda telling Niteshbhai, “I hope this new year is very prosperous for your family.”

I wish each of you the same. And I pray that the joy and hope that Diwali represents will remain in your hearts, not just during this season, but all year long.

Diwali Sweets

My Favorite Bare Bodkins

My last post, “Word Pressure” (March 20), brings me to what was to have been my first post. But first, a confession about the confession in my first blog proper, “The Fire Thieves” (January 23). In that blog I had confessed that I’d told three people that my first blog would be about my favorite character, but my muse deserted me just when I needed her (what’s new) and I had to write about Timon of Athens and Pale Fire and Brush Up Your Shakespeare! instead.

My confession about this confession may not seem like much of a confession to anyone who knows me or has read Pioneer Boulevard (or my last post) or attended one of my author talks. But I think it’s a matter of integrity to fess up that in that first blog proper I did write about my favorite character. If you read it you’ll find Hamlet there. This post will be about my favorite character in my own book, but because she is patterned upon my favorite character, you’ll find that great Dane here as well.

Branagh as Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh with a bare bodkin, 1996

This post is inspired by the epiphany-triggering question I was asked at the Hastings Branch author talk on January 7. I had considered referring to the audience member who asked me this question as Tarun to protect his identity, but I realized that the pseudonym would not protect his identity. Tarun is the Hindi word for young, and any Indian reading this post would have figured out that I’m referring to Young, the reader who reads my blog faithfully and posts comments that keep my mind on its toes. For this, and for his epiphany-triggering question at Hastings Branch, this post is dedicated to him.

Young’s question was about my favorite character, whom I’d been waiting to be asked about since my first author talk (at the Pasadena Central Library on July 20, three weeks after Pioneer Boulevard was published). At that reading a friend I had invited asked me about her favorite character (Gertie in “Some Sunny Day”), but my favorite character had her fifteen seconds of fame only when I talked about her to fill an awkward silence during the Q&A session. Well, she got more than fifteen seconds whenever I talked about her, but nothing was enough for her. She insisted that she deserved more.

“I’ve given you countless hours of writing pleasure,” she whined after the South Whittier reading. “And I’ve helped you do something about that obsession of yours.” (She was referring to my Hamlet obsession. I wish I’d never told her about it, because she flings it in my face whenever she wants her way.)

“You certainly have, Delia darling,” I replied gratefully. “Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks.”

“Words, words, words,” she retorted ungratefully. “You owe me much more than thanks.”

“I know, Delia darling,” I re-replied placatingly. “You think I don’t want to talk about you? But no one asks me about you. I can only answer the questions—”

“The questions?” she re-retorted implacably. “Doesn’t that remind you of the question? That is, the question of what you owe me?”

“Yes, Delia darling, it does,” I re-re-replied, my voice softer and humbler. “I owe you much more than I’ve been able to give you.”

“Then isn’t it time you suited the action to the word?” she re-re-retorted, her voice louder and prouder. “Or will you just stand by like not-a-mouse-stirring and say the time is out of joint and let conscience make you lose the name of action?”

Before I finish relating that conversation, there’s something I must tell you about Delia. She thinks that because she was patterned upon my favorite character she can quote him for any little thing. She doesn’t always quote him accurately, but I am unable to correct her. Unable and unwilling. You see, I have pampered her. No, let me call a spade a spade. I have spoilt her rotten. So although I am her creator, I am putty in her hands. 

“You’re right, Delia darling. It’s time I suited the action to the word.” My suiting the action to the word, I am ashamed to admit, involved an underhand move.

Hamlet Olivier

Laurence Olivier with a bare bodkin, 1948

Three days before the Hastings Branch talk I received an email from Young telling me his copy of Pioneer Boulevard had arrived. He said he could attend the Hastings Branch talk, and asked me if I like Christopher Marlowe. My underhand move is in my reply:

I did read Marlowe at college but where Elizabethan drama (or drama) is concerned, I am a one-man woman. So it won’t surprise you to know that my favorite story is “The Tiffany Lamp.” I am not reading from it on Tuesday, but I hope the excerpt I do read will provoke a discussion. Please come prepared to ask a question, to fill an awkward silence. Preferably something that occurred to you while reading one of the stories.

I was hoping that by telling Young that my favorite story was “The Tiffany Lamp” he’d rise to the bait (or fall for it), read the story before the author talk, and ask me about Delia. He read the story alright, but nothing prepared me for the question he asked:

Would you say that Delia, like Hamlet, is the tragic figure in her own story?

I was speechless (for a moment). I had never seen Delia as the tragic figure in her own story. The protagonist, yes, but not the tragic figure. To me she is the child whose diapers I have changed. How could I see her as anything else after that? I haven’t had real children, but I imagine that no mother sees her child as a tragic figure, no matter how great they grow up to be (or not to be). I’m guessing that Mary Arden Shakespeare never saw her firstborn son as anything other than the baby whose nappies she changed from April 23, 1564 (or April 26, when he was christened) until she had him potty trained.

Tennant as Hamlet

David Tennant with a bare bodkin, 2009

That is only conjecture, of course, but please don’t tell me if you find out otherwise. If Mary Arden Shakespeare saw William differently, it will force me to see Delia in a new light and I’d rather let her remain the spoilt brat she is. I didn’t say that in my response to Young’s question, but he reads this blog so he knows now.

Bare Bods

Word Pressure

For the second Thursday morning in a row, I checked my messages to find this cheery email from WordPress:

Howdy! Great job meeting your posting goal last week. This is just a friendly reminder to write this week’s post. Keep up the great work! Looking for inspiration? Here are some great posts by bloggers just like you. 

Had WordPress put such word pressure on Shakespeare, he’d have clicked on his Twitter app and sent out a tweet at once. Being a lesser mortal, I meekly put down my phone and turned on my computer.

Hamlet Twitter

The first of the three great posts by bloggers just like me was an allegedly entertaining one on “the poor redesigns of famous book covers, from 1984 to Hamlet.” In the past I have always resisted the temptation to read what WordPress considers great posts by bloggers just like me, but they got me with Hamlet. I clicked on the link to the post titled “Why Do We Redesign Book Covers, But Not Album Covers?”

I didn’t read the full post, only the bit about Hamlet, in which the blogger just like me compares and contrasts two cover images. “I hate seeing people getting paid for substandard ineffectual work,” he writes. “Secondly, I feel the artist has let the book down.” I agree, but not in that order. Because Hamlet is my favorite work of literature, firstly I believe the artist has let the book down.

Hamlet cover 1Hamlet cover 2

The ghastly Penguin Popular Classics cover (which, to add insult to injury, mentions the price) made me think, What were they thinking? But the New Penguin cover doesn’t do Hamlet justice either. I can guess what Paul Hogarth was thinking – Hamlet is the man in black, and he talks a lot – but still, I hate to see my favorite character being likened to a crow. Or any other member of the corvidae family, for that matter. A crow by any other name . . .   

Although I hadn’t visited the blog for inspiration, I was inspired to search for other Hamlet cover images. Of the many that showed up instantly, this one caught my eye. I like its pencil-sketch feel, but I wish the designer had not included the skull because they were advertising a festival for children. Perhaps the creative brief had said: “No ghosts. Anything else okay.” 

Hamlet cover 3

Hamlet is much more than what Hamlet says about Yorick, but the skull is one of the most potent images in the play. It represents mortality, and Hamlet’s most famous words are about just that, so I suppose artists find it irresistible. I’m not partial to skulls myself, but I must admit that William Bottini, a Berkeley-based artist with a degree in English lit, has done a good job designing this día de los muertos-themed artwork.

Hamlet cover 4

Of the DVD sleeves that showed up in my search, I like the one of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which is my favorite film (and one of the few DVDs I own). Even though I’ve seen it more times than I can count, I am always moved by the visual and musical ironies of this scene: Claudius and Gertrude exit to a shower of confetti and the robust strains of a march, and in a moment we’ll be left alone with the man in black. (Alas, poor Hamlet! His too too solid flesh will eventually melt, thaw, and go the way of all flesh.)

Hamlet DVD cover

But of all the Hamlet cover designs I have seen, my favorite remains the one for the first quarto. It has that Old World charm – apart from the quaint spelling, I find the f-like s‘s very romantic – and it was also seen by William Shakefpeare.

Shakespeare Quartos Project 

Write Brain

Six months or half a year (six of one, half a dozen of the other) after writing to Salman Rushdie, I attended the local authors fair (LAF) at Eastvale Library in Riverside County. The date, January 11, is written 1/11 in the US and 11/1 elsewhere – and what a difference the slash placement makes. It took me years to get used to the American date format (making many mistakes along the way, most of them not funny). Just when I began writing 11/1 as 1/11 (and 1/11 as 11/1) in a right-brained way, I moved to England.

Incidentally, I was taught at school that dates should be indicated with dashes and not slashes, because “only clerks use slashes.” In memory of that long-dead time, let me return to the dash while referring to what happened on 1-11/11-1.

Left and Right

One of my fellow LAF participants on 1-11/11-1 was Libby Grandy, author of Promises to Keep and Desert SoliloquyI was intrigued by the second title, imagining the book to be a memoir or a story of a woman who, following some traumatic experience, moves to the Mojave and there conducts a monologue. So the first thing I asked Libby after introducing myself was what the book was about. It’s a mystery. The book, I mean, is a mystery novel.

Libby told me she’d told her husband that she will keep writing as long as her fingers and eyes work. “Your brain should work too,” said her husband. To which Libby responded, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.”

Sharon Edwards & Libby Grandy

Had I, like Libby Grandy, told my husband (assuming I had one) that I’d keep writing as long as my fingers and eyes work, and had he (assuming he was as smart as Mr. Grandy) told me that my brain should work too, I’d have said what she did: “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” While writing Pioneer Boulevard I didn’t think much about my brain (which is not the same as saying I didn’t think much of my brain). I thought more about those members of my anatomy that actually hurt when I wrote too much, including my eyes and typing fingers.

Back in 2000, Pioneer Boulevard cover artist Joe Gil had said I was the fastest two-finger typist he knew. Now I might well be the slowest eight-finger typist he knows. If I was ever late submitting a first draft to the other Joe involved with Pioneer Boulevard, my tutor Joe Stretch, it had everything to do with sore eyes and aching fingers and nothing to do with my brain refusing to come up with a story idea. As my fellow Americans would say, That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

A Letter to Salman Rushdie

Last year on July 11, I thought of the thousands of Indians who have prospered in America because of 7-Eleven, and I began to feel hopelessly optimistic. I’d have had to wait until November 7 to feel this way had I lived in a country that uses that the international date format, but now that I had begun to feel hopelessly optimistic, I couldn’t wait even a day. And I didn’t wait a minute. The moment I had the idea to write to Salman Rushdie, I acted upon it. Had I let my mind find out about the idea, Salman Rushdie would never have heard from me.

Dear Mr. Rushdie,

I am hoping that my praise was excessive enough to be even faintly memorable. This happened in June 2008 at Vroman’s Pasadena, after you’d read from The Enchantress of Florence. You were kind enough to let me have my picture taken with you, and I am now hoping you will let me post it on my author page.

I have recently published my first book, Pioneer Boulevard, ten stories set in LA’s Indian community, and I must thank you for your part in this book. “Midnight’s Children is a tough act to follow,” I’d said after the praise (which was not excessive enough). “How do you do it?” At the end of your reply you said, “You don’t compete with yourself.” I remembered those words often when writing the Pioneer Boulevard stories. (My tutor, Joe Stretch, called it “a fantastic quote.”)

The odds that I will hear from you are against me, but like Delia, Lady Hamlet, my favorite character in my book, I am a hopeless optimist.

Sharon

Sharon Edwards & Salman Rushdie

In the week that I had to wait to hear back, my hopeless optimism turned to hopelessness. After checking Facebook obsessively for four days, I realized that the odds were indeed against me, and my mind didn’t make things easier by telling me I told you so. But on the 18th, when I saw the letter from Salman Rushdie, I told my mind I told you so. The reply was probably written by Salman Rushdie’s assistants, but a letter from Salman Rushdie’s assistants is good enough for me. For now.

Incidentally, Salman Rushdie’s assistants are smart enough to know that I hadn’t really written for permission to use our photo. I had written to Salman Rushdie simply to have written to Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie reply

A Subject of No Inconsiderable Magnitude

This is the one post my friends have been waiting for. I don’t know if they will actually read it, but I know they are waiting for me to tell them I did it. I used to call them each time I published a post, but in my second blogging week I started noticing them moving away whenever I walked into the room. It was barely noticeable at first, but by the end of the third week it was too obvious to miss. Something was amiss. That weekend I asked Penny what I might have done to upset everyone. Of all my friends, she’s the one I can count on to deal the unkindest cut in the kindest manner.

“Sharon,” said Penny (kindly), “it’s really not helpful to call people and tell them you’ve published a post whenever you do it. Especially not at two a.m. No, not one either. And no, not one p.m. either. Just the other day, Andy, Brandi, Connie, Donny, Eddie, Freddy, Gary, Harry, Jimmy, Kimmie, Lizzie, Missy, Yanni, and Zany were saying someone should tell you, so I’m glad you asked. You’re such a brave person. I admire you, Sharon, I really do. I wish I could be like you. Actually, I wish I could be you.”

Those warm fuzzies were cut short by the unkindest cut: “Just post a status update on Facebook whenever you publish a post, and everyone will read it if . . . I mean, they’ll read it.”

That little word if, though not said unkindly, was the cut. Even though Penny followed it with “I mean,” I know that she had really meant to say: “If they haven’t unfriended you.” It was a wake-up call – not the kind I had been giving my friends at one and two a.m. –so I stopped calling everyone from Andy to Zany whenever I published a post.

But I don’t think anyone will mind my calling them after I publish this post. Even three a.m. should be okay this time, because now that I’ve stopped giving them wake-up calls, I can see the concern on their faces. As a writer and a former communications consultant I am attuned to nonverbal cues, and the question is clear in that slight intake of breath, that raised brow, that sympathetic head-tilt. Some of them still leave the room whenever I enter, and I am especially touched by their sympathy. Because it says they simply cannot bear to let me see the question anywhere on their person, knowing that will hurt me. I feel truly blessed to have such caring friends. 

The question my friends ask through their nonverbal cues is: When will you write about him? In their nonverbal cues they never dare say his name, and they’d never dare play on his name, but if I had to ask myself the question, I’d ask myself: When the Dickens will you write about Dickens?

Dickens youth

To begin writing about the Inimitable, I will have to refer back to my last post (“Maximum Hold“), in which I had mentioned active listening. That reminded me of an experience I’d had when I lived in Mumbai, an experience that made me feel like the Dickensian character I describe in a Pioneer Boulevard story as “the Anglican Quixote” (with a play on Anglican). 

While attending a seminar I found myself in conversation with a fellow seminar-ian (not a fellow seminarian) who asked me what I did for a living. His nonverbal cues seemed to indicate that he thought that might not be much, so I replied with all the dignity I could muster. When I get that sort of question today, I reply in my most flippant manner (and I rarely mention the word author).

The nonverbal cues became more pronounced (not in my favor), but he nevertheless deigned to ask me what a communications consultant does. Being younger and less flippant, I told my fellow seminar-ian (with increased dignity) about the interpersonal workshops (I didn’t tell him I paid the bills by modeling). It must have been the word interpersonal, or perhaps it was the increased dignity, but he finally seemed to think me worthy of a real question: “What are the three main points of communication?”

I was taken aback. Communication is such a vast subject that I could not reduce it to three points. I felt like Pickwick in the scene from which the Pioneer Boulevard epigraph is taken, when Count Smorltork reduces his observation about the word politics to “fine words to begin a chapter.” 

“You will have enough to do,” said Mr. Pickwick smiling, “to gather all the materials you want in [one week].”
“Eh, they are gathered,” said the count.
“Indeed!” said Mr. Pickwick.
“They are here,” added the count, tapping his forehead significantly. “Large book at home—full of notes—music, picture, science, potry, poltic; all tings.”
“The word politics, sir,” said Mr. Pickwick, “comprises in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude.”
“Ah!” said the count, drawing out the tablets again, “ver good—fine words to begin a chapter. Chapter forty-seven. Poltics. The word poltic surprises by himself—” And down went Mr. Pickwick’s remark, in Count Smorltork’s tablets, with such variations and additions as the count’s exuberant fancy suggested, or his imperfect knowledge of the language occasioned.

I told my fellow seminar-ian that communication cannot be summed up in three points, but he was insistent, and I was younger and less flippant, so I gave in and gave him his three points. I forget the first two, but the third was about the importance of listening. My fellow seminar-ian was jotting down notes as I spoke. He seemed happy enough with his first two points, but when I mentioned listening he looked up with a frown.

“Listening?” he said. “What does that have to do with communication?”

Listening Skills