Friday, December 24, 2010

Three Christmas Wishes

May our holidays burst with laughter and great times with family and friends. May our Christmas trees not explode.

May we have the wisdom to understand that we are small compared to purple Christmas trees (and things like love and hope and all that).

May we have the balls to change what is holding us down.
Merry Christmas, you lovely people. I hope you're all with family and friends sipping Gluehwein in Germany or hot mulled wine in the US or, well, caipirinhas in Rio. If you happen to be reading this on Christmas Day (bless you), have a look over at Metazen, the literary ezine I co-edit. MetaSanta left something in your stocking.

Ein frohes Fest und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr.

I must be off (to bake a turkey),

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Year in Stories

Looking back at these stories gives me a sense of self or better selves, of how I saw my world and how I wrote little worlds into being. My life as a writer is torn is so many directions. When I look at these stories, I'm challenged to find a single voice. Maybe I don't have one. Here are a few of the highlights:

In January 2010 I was still going to bookstores, hoping to see Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People. Occasionally I'd spot the book, open it to my story and stand there like Mr. Bean nodding and pointing to my name. Recently I found the book in Singapore. Here it is with its cover showing:

It is an amazing feeling to walk into a bookstore in Singapore and find a book with your story in it. Unfortunately, almost all the books in the store were wrapped in plastic so they could be returned, so I couldn't do my Mr. Bean act. I did take one book up to the bestseller rack. I also found the book this week at Kroger just five minutes from my parents' house in Nolensville, Tennessee. Small world.

In February Piker Press published "Our Stepford Wife," a humorous-I-hope tale about an unusual love triangle. Something else unusual for an online magazine: I got a paper contract in the post with a personal note from the publisher. Another "p" word that comes to mind: professional.

In March, my story "The Orangery" appeared at Every Day Fiction. It's the story of a daughter coming to terms with the perennial voice of her mother. Thank you to all the people who showed up and commented at Every Day Fiction. And thank you to the editors of EDF for giving the world a story every day.

Flash I wrote. I did. I'm not very good at it, and I should stop trying. I like these nuggets, though, at Lowestoft Chronicle, Gambol Magazine, and an especially weird bedtime story at In Between Altered States.

This summer I caused a few days of drama when I unthinkingly posted "Red Toy Soldier" on Fictionaut after it won The Smoking Poet's Third Annual Short Story Contest. Live and learn. And one thing I learned: I'm not as smart as I look.

Full of Crow published "The Wishing," a story about a little brother who can't escape being little. It's not autobiographical in the strictest sense. I never published one of my brother's stories. My brother was much larger than I am, though. It was a difficult relationship. That was never a secret.

At the end of the summer, something STRANGE happened. "Christmas 'Neath the Bridge of Sighs" (cowritten with M.J. Nicholls) won the Strange Circle Short Story contest. Read the story about the story here.

My story "Hunger" found its way into the Writers Abroad Anthology in November. It's about a troubled fellow from Hackney who goes to Germany in search of a girl because she once told him that everything works in Germany . . . so he thinks his life will too. The story has nothing to do with my own. Eating is too important to me to be so hungry.

A few of my creative non-fiction babies were picked up and petted this year. Connotation Press liked "Coming Home"; "Night Train to Brasov" appeared in the Motif vol. 2 Come What May: an Anthology of Writings about Chance, and "Listening to My Body" (originally entitled "When a Body Knows Best," but Chicken Soup changed it) will be in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You, in stores December 28, 2010.

My year was also filled with the usual rejection rejection rejection. I would have peppered this post with rejection letters if any of them had been inspired or funny or absurd or nasty; but sadly they were almost all the garden variety "no thanks" letters. Most of the stories above were rejected a couple of times before they were accepted; some were rejected "a few" more times.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You
On December 28, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You will be in stores. If you like inspirational stories, I hope you'll pick up a copy; if this is not your type of reading, I still hope you'll pick the book up, turn to page 300, and nod and point like Mr. Bean.

I must be off,

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Top Ten Worst Air Passengers of 2010

Christmas in Singapore
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Another installment in the series Lessons from a Wise Sky

Merry Christmas, everyone! If you don't celebrate Christmas, well Merry all-the-other-holidays too! I thought some of you might be taking to the skies this holiday season, so I've decided to go all informative on you and count down the ten worst air passengers of 2010.

On my trip to Southeast Asia this November, I boarded six flights and spent at least two days of the eighteen-day vacation 30,000 feet above the earth. As you can imagine, this gave me lots of time to work on my list. So let's get to it. Starting with the least irritating of this odious bunch . . .

10. The guy who stands up and starts rifling through the overhead bin when the FASTEN SEATBELT sign is lit. He's also the guy who stands up before the plane has reached its final parking position and the captain has turned off the FASTEN SEATBELT sign. This person has always thought the rules were made for everyone but him. He's irritating, but unless he's opening the bin over my head, he's only mildly so.

9. People who mosey out of the plane as if they're on their way to their own execution. You've been sitting for ten hours. You'd think you'd want to spring through the air like a gazelle. Still, I can skip around these folks unless they're poking in packs. Here's a tip (this blog is FILLED with useful tips): When you're traveling to a foreign country, you have to go through passport control. The more snails you squash on the way to immigration, the faster you'll get out of the airport. In Bangkok, it took us almost two hours to get through immigration (and that's even after I elbowed at least 50 people out of the way). There were actually airport employees taking the elderly people and babies through a special line (maybe because they've seen people die in the queue before?).

8. Men who need to talk politics when they find out you're a US-American. This happens very rarely due to the fact that I almost never open my mouth on planes. Often I pretend I no parlo Americano. Tip: if you don't want to talk to someone on a plane, pretend you're from Estonia. No one speaks Estonian. The Estonians started speaking it themselves again only after the fall of communism.

7. Women with six carry-on bags (when carry-on bags are limited to ONE). I once witnessed a woman come down the aisle, slapping every seated aisle person in the face with an enormous shoulder bag. Man, that was funny. OK, not so irritating unless you're the one she slaps. The aisle-people contingent (to which I proudly belong) has to suffer bumps and bruises from drink carts and flight attendants' butts. Most of us are mentally armored. We understand the concept of the aisle. We're smart. We know what comes with our territory.

6. And speaking of territory: The endless struggle for armrest territory has lasted longer than the cold war. The guy--sorry guys, it's usually a man--who thinks he deserves two armests and MORE because he's BIG AND HAIRY deserves a place inching toward the height of irritation. I was sitting next to one of these creatures on my nine-hour flight from Munich to New Jersey last week. About halfway into the flight I actually got my notepad out to write the guy a bill for the six centimeters of my space his BIG, HAIRY ARM was taking.

5. The person who stinks. It's usually a man's feet, but it can occasionally be a woman who thinks deodorant is "unhealthy" and "unnatural." Bodies by nature do all sorts of stinky things, but it should suffice to say that if your feet smell like a rotting zebra carcass, you should probably keep your shoes on. You should also make room for amputation in your sense of body consciousness.

4. The guy who leans back with all his force without checking to make sure my head is not in the path of his seatback. This borders on violence, and it happens more often than you might think. This guy deserves a spot near the height of irritation.

3. The woman--sorry, gals! It's almost always a woman--who holds up the queue boarding the plane because she's waited until she gets to her seat to take out her neck pillow, her magazines, her snacks and her knitting. And she's got six carry-on bags to stow! And she needs help because she's petite and helpless (had no trouble with the mountain of bags, though). And she needs to fill out her immigration form while standing in the aisle oblivious to the 200 people waiting to get on the plane. Tip (so informative, this blog is): Put everything you want to keep at your seat in one, small carry-on bag. Get organized while sitting at the gate! Uh-oh, I feel the emotion bubbling over. We're getting close to the most irritating of all.

2. Packs of passengers on long-haul flights who congregate near the lavatories or kitchens or emergency exits and throw mini-parties while 200 other passengers are trying to sleep. They laugh, they shout, they sing, they do football cheers. Why don't the flight attendants politely tell them to be quiet? I did once. I shouted, "Shut up!" at the top of my lungs (I'm interpreting 'polite' loosely). It worked. And no one got angry at me . . . because I pretended to be asleep after I did it.

1. Drum roll, please. We have officially arrived at the height of irritation. The winner of this year's "Worst Passenger Award" will be magically transformed into the ape in the picture above. Are you doing a drum roll? Because this isn't nearly as much fun without a drum roll. Doing it? OK.

The person who doesn't understand boundaries (which is a universal irritation in all aspects of life).

On my recent flight from Bali to Bangkok, the guy in front of me put his stinky shoes under his own seat. The space under his seat is actually the place for my feet and the carry-on bag of my choosing. It's my space, not his--and certainly not for his smelly shoes. But he's not the worst of the worst (he doesn't get to be the ape).

On a recent trip to the US, three girls in their late teens took the row in front of me and proceeded to convert it into a slumber party bedroom. When all three of them draped their hoodies over their seats, the hoods drooped down, blocking all three monitors on my row.

"Um," I said to the girl in front of me.

"Yes?" she replied in a Russian accent.

"Your hoodie is blocking my screen."

She grunted as if I was a troublemaker and continued nesting. The girls occupied the overhead bins with eight carry-on bags among them. It was unbelievable how much stuff they were allowed to carry onto the plane.

"Um," I said again. The girl was trying to stuff a medium-sized bag under her seat, literally on top of my feet.


I smiled, but it was one of those smiles that says 'Careful, honey. I'm about to eat you.' "See, the space under your seat is actually for my feet, not your bags."

"But where am I supposed to put it?" The girls were sitting in the row with a wall in front of it. This is a bit unfair to these passengers, but such is life, right?

"I don't know. Somewhere else?" I said.

About this time the two other people in my row were realizing that their monitors were blocked. The flight attendant intervened and the girls grudgingly retreated to their own territory. Maybe Papa had told them he'd bought the whole plane for them?

Thank goodness these ten terrible passengers are a small minority among the multitude of sweet and wonderful airplane folk. Most passengers are great. They let you up when you need to go to the lavatory. They talk to you when you need to talk; they shut up when they can see you want to sleep. They keep themselves out of your space. They help you clean up your wine when you spill it all over the seat.

Being on an airplane brings out the worst in some people (myself included). I'm probably on someone's list of worst passengers. I'm the guy freaking out because the airline misplaced his gluten-free meal. Tip: Freaking out usually gets you a meal from business class.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Second Language and Place Blog Carnival

Wow. What a linep-up this time. Go HERE to find out who's on the Language and Place Blog Carnival Merry-go-round this month--hosted by Nicolette Wong.

I must be off,

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Taksi or Fright?

Fright number 89, Asia Air to Phuket boarding at gate number 66.

I looked around at the Chinese travellers around me. They were too busy clamouring over trinkets and sweets to hear the humour in the announcement. They wouldn’t have noticed it anyway. Such things are for Anglo-ears only.

“Fright 89,” I said to myself and laughed—because someone needed to. “I should hope not.”

The next gate announcement was a recorded voice that managed the “L” in flight just fine. I couldn’t help thinking that at some scary moment in the past the airport had hired someone to read the announcements due to the panic caused by calling one’s flight a fright.

As a US-American and an English teacher/writer, I’m blessed with the luxury of speaking the world’s lingua franca pretty darn well. And for this reason I almost never tell people I’m from the US when I travel. My travelling companions are invariably German, so it’s easy to pass myself off as one (although I’m a bit shorter than my companions and have a sillier sense of humour).

I always learn a few polite phrases when I go to a new country, but I’m never going to be fluent in Thai or Indonesian, so why spend my whole holiday learning as if I’m cramming for a language exam just because I’m embarrassed by my obvious linguistic advantage? Everyone speaks English to hotel receptionists and taxi drivers. Basic English language skills are part of their job. In Barcelona a few years ago, the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to my hotel griped at me the entire 40 minutes because I didn’t speak enough Spanish to have a conversation with him about football. I told him I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with him about football in English either.

Cuando vienes a Barcelona, debe hablar catalán!” He shouted this at me . . . more than once.

Really? Do I? It’s not that I don’t want to. I wish I had time to simply learn languages 24/7. That would be cielo en la tierra, Mr. Taxidriver. The reality is that I, like millions of other travellers, are squished under more pressing matters.

I try, though. I have to try, actually. I have a problem with gluten, so I have to make myself understood in restaurants. Most western countries have caught on to the fact that more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for a waiter in a restaurant to ask you if you’re a celiac when you say you can’t eat gluten; in Southeast Asia it’s almost impossible to explain what you mean.

“Excuse me,” I said, finally getting the chef’s attention. We were at a buffet in one of Bangkok’s tallest hotels.


The floor at the buffet. Irrelevant but pretty.

“Could you tell me what’s in this?” I pointed to the bowl of soya sauce. I was at the sushi bar.

“Soya sauce!”

“Yes, I know, but I need to know exactly what’s in it.” Most soya sauces contain wheat.

“Moment!” Why he was shouting I don’t know.

“Yes?” This was another chef (supposedly the one in charge of troublemaking English speakers).

“Hi. I need to know what’s in this. Can I see the container?”

“Soya sauce.”

“Yes, I know what it is; I just need to know what’s in it.”

“Asian sauce. Japanese. For sushi.”

“Yes . . . I know . . .”

“Come with me.” He led me around to the other side of the buffet and showed me a small container that was recognisably soya sauce.”

“Yes, I know it’s soya sauce,” I said and tried to smile, but seriously I was losing it. “Can you read me the ingredients on the bottle?”


“The ingredients. I need to know what’s in it.”


I took the bottle and pointed to the list of ingredients, all written in Thai.

“Ohhhhhh.” He took the bottle and smiled, putting on his glasses. “Soy and, um . . . salt and, hmmm, powder.” He gave the bottle back to me and smiled grandly.

“Powder?” Like gunpowder? Or talcum powder? Or maybe an industrial zinc powder?

“Powder,” he said.

“Is it by chance the kind of powder you make bread with?”

“Yes! Powder!”
The Marina Bay Sands (Singapore). We did not go here.

“Thank you.” I put down my plate of sushi and headed for the table with the steamed rice. I ate a lot of steamed rice in Thailand, but I also ate a few excellent Thai curries when the waiter could list the ingredients (which was often the case).

In Singapore on the way to the airport, a Chinese taxi driver taught me how to tell the world that gluten/wheat is poison to me in Chinese. We had such a great time. In exchange he wanted to know how to tell his wife she was pretty (and also ugly, strangely enough) in German. He thought I was German, of course.

“Your wife isn’t German, is she?” I asked as we rolled up to the terminal.

“No, just funny. Ha ha. Potthässlich. That’s funny. Du bist potthässlich.” He prounounced the word, which means ‘extremely ugly’ in German, potthahsrich, and I told him his pronunciation was fantastic. I’m sure he was doing the same thing when he taught me the Chinese phrase.

“I wouldn’t say that to your wife,” I said.

“You don’t know wife! Have a nice fright!” he said as he jumped back into his taxi.

Ha. I must be off,

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bangkok is Sinking!

How Bangkok might look in 25 years?
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It’s true. Bangkok will be totally submerged in sea water within 25 years, according to a slew of academics and researchers in the GEO2TECDI (GEodetic Earth Observation Technologies for Thailand: Environmental Change Detection and Investigation) project. Someone likes long names.

Bangkok, which is only 80 to 100 centimeters above sea level, is a sprawling mess of skyscrapers, traffic jams, and 7-elevens. At street level, where thousands of vendors cook and sell food from carts, filth is everywhere. Well, not exactly everywhere. Walking down one of the major roads, you’ll see a beautiful five-star hotel followed by a row of vendors selling everything from illegal CDs to chicken on a stick. Then you’ll walk past an abandoned building, which squatters may have taken over. Then more vendors cooking food. Then a 7-eleven. Then an area of the sidewalk that looks like a million pigeons had a bad curry. You get the picture. It’s not pretty.

Around fifteen meters above street level, however, Bangkok has a modern train system (opened in 1999) that links all the major übermalls. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some visitors never even get down to the street. This train system was built to alleviate Bangkok’s traffic worries. Although the trains were full every time I rode them, the streets were also crowded every time we took a taxi or a tuk-tuk (motorized open rickshaws).

75% of water pollution in Bangkok is domestic sewage

It’s hard not to have a smoke-em-if-you-got-em attitude when it comes to a city like Bangkok. Is it worth saving? The obvious answer to this question, considering the area is home to over 12 million people and is visited by an equal number of foreign tourists each year, is yes. Does Bangkok have an endless list of seemingly insurmountable problems? Yes.

Twelve million tourists a year

That list includes air pollution, traffic you can grow old and gray in, sex trafficking, and scams that target gullible tourists; but very high on the list is water pollution, 75% of which is domestic wastewater pumped mostly untreated into the Chao Phraya River. I’ve taken several rides on this river myself. If you’re on a large dinner cruiser, you don’t notice the filth beneath you; but in smaller boats where the spray from the waves occasionally wets your face, you do get the impression that you are floating in a septic tank. You are.

At least this place is clean

The King’s Palace is a diamond in the toilet, though (pardon the expression, King Bhumibol, but until Bangkok flushes, it’s a fitting expression). Let’s hope this happens before the whole place floods. What a mess that will be.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. His award-winning fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous places both online and in print. More HERE.