Holidays Around the World: Diwali, Festival of Lights

Diwali Day is the first of a five-day festival of lights celebrated by Hindus around the world. The holiday observes the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, hope over despair, and knowledge over ignorance. Celebrating those victories seems to me to be something people of all religions, or even of no religion, could get on board with.

Diwali originated as a harvest festival. It isn’t observed on a fixed date but usually falls between late October and early November. This year, it falls on November 4.

Diwali is one of the major Hindu holidays, which should be obvious from the ways it is celebrated. Typically, families gather for prayers, clean up the home and workplace, dress up in new clothes, light lamps and candles, and set off fireworks.

My introduction to Diwali came during my first overseas assignment with the US Department of State in Stuttgart, Germany. One of my former colleagues from my pre-diplomat days came to Germany on business and made a side trip to Stuttgart to see me. She introduced me to an Indian couple she had met years before when they were in Bahrain. Because I can’t remember their names, I’ll call them Kamal and Saira. My friend returned to Minnesota, and I kept in touch with the Kamal and Saira.

Later that year, Saira and Kamal invited me to their home to take part in their observation of Diwali. Most of those they invited were not Hindu and not Indian, so the two of them explained the holiday and how they observed it. Lit candles surrounded us in their living room as we conversed and got to know one another better over a meal of typically Indian foods.

Several years and assignments later, when I was assigned as the management officer at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, I saw broader observation of Diwali due to the much larger Hindu population in that country. In the weeks leading up to Diwali, shops throughout the city strung lights up outside, the type of lights I still refer to as Christmas lights, making the streets downtown look like a carnival. Families filled the shops as they selected the new clothes they would wear when the festival began.

At the embassy, a group of a dozen women, both American and local staff, had begun meeting weekly during our lunch break to explore the many cultures the local staff at the embassy represented. As Diwali approached, we agreed we should encourage everyone at the embassy to light a candle on their desk for at least part of the day (we didn’t want to create fire hazards) to show respect for the Hindu employees who observed the holiday without having the time off to do so in their homes.

Since then, I’ve associated lighting candles with Diwali, observing the same victories for light, good, hope, and knowledge, victories we never seem to run out of needs to encourage.

Featured image credit: Photo by Udayaditya Barua on Unsplash

In Memoriam

I never met General Colin Powell. But I experienced his support for me personally one day in January of 2001, early in the week he took up his responsibilities as Secretary of State.

I was in Sana’a, Yemen, that day, three months after the USS Cole had been hit by terrorists off the cost of the Yemeni port of Aden in order to refuel. Seventeen American sailors died in that attack. In response, the FBI and NCIS sent teams of investigators to determine who was behind the attack. Their presence meant high-ranking civilian and military leaders frequently came to Sana’a to consult with Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh. The FBI director had visited within weeks of the attack. And now, in January, the embassy was preparing for a visit by the general in charge of Central Command.

The general expected to arrive in Sana’a for the meeting, but President Saleh was in Taiz, the third largest Yemeni city situated in the southwest of the country. Once the political capital of Yemen, Taiz was still known as the cultural capital of Yemen. Saleh requested the meeting take place in Taiz. In order for embassy staff to be involved in the discussions, the ambassador, deputy chief of mission, defense attaché, public affairs officer, political officer, and the general’s advance security detail arranged at the last minute to fly from Sana’a to Taiz where the general would meet up with them for the consultations with the Yemeni president and his advisors.

Under normal circumstances, the entire top leadership of the embassy would never travel together, leaving the embassy without both the ambassador and deputy chief of mission. But the deputy chief of mission had only arrived in country a few days before and the man who had filled in until he arrived was still in Sana’a. He remained in charge for the duration of the trip. Other key staff members at the embassy were the two members of the Regional Security Office, the economic officer, the two consular officers, the embassy doctor, and me, the administrative officer. Fortuitously, the regional psychiatric officer from a neighborhing embassy was also in town for one of her quarterly visits.

Around noon, I was having lunch in the cafeteria when the assistant security officer came to the door and motioned to me to join him in the hallway. When I got there, instead of telling me why he had me join him, he told me to follow him and led me up the stairs to the Community Liaison Office where the senior security officer and regional psychiatrist were waiting for the return of the community liaison office coordinator, the wife of the defense attaché who was with the ambassador’s group.

Before she arrived, the senior security officer explained that we were here because the ambassador’s plane had been hijacked. The hijacker demanded the plane be flown to Baghdad. He wanted us to be with him when he told the defense attaché’s wife about the hijacking. And that’s when I discovered that swooning is a real thing. My knees buckled and I leaned against the wall to avoid falling.

Hundreds of questions flooded my mind. Did the hijacker choose the plane because the ambassador and her group were on the plane? Did the hijacker know the ambassador was on board? Did the hijacker know the ambassador had been the deputy chief of mission in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait?

The five of us then went up to the Deputy Chief of Mission office where the TV showed CNN reporting on the event. Shortly after we arrived, the phone rang and we learned the plane had just landed in Djibouti and all the passengers had safely deplaned.

Because I had seen the reporting on CNN, I sent a message to my parents to let them know that I was fine and they shouldn’t worry.

I don’t know if the general met with Saleh on that trip. Too many other things consumed my time and mental energy the rest of the day. I know he arrived in Sana’a about the same time as the plane that returned the ambassador and others to the capital. He joined others at dinner at the ambassador’s residence that evening.

The next day the ambassador told us about a remarkable phone call she received in the middle of dinner. Secretary Powell called to let her know how pleased he was that she and the others were all safe. She hadn’t expected such a call. Had any other Secretary of State been in his place, none of us would have expected a call about an event that ended well.

That’s when I knew that Secretary Powell truly had our backs. All of ours.

The next day my parents called to ask why I told them not to worry. The hijacking event was no longer news by the time they woke up. I needn’t have worried them by telling them not to worry.

Holidays Around the World: Leif Erikson Day

Leif Erikson Day has been observed in the United States on October 9 every year since 1964. The date is significant, but not for the reason I thought. Until 1971, when Columbus Day (now Indigenous People’s Day) was observed on October 12 instead of on the second Monday of each month, Leif Erikson Day always came before Columbus Day, just as Leif Erikson landed in North America 500 years before Christopher Colombus. The October 9 date, however, has another significance. It marked the date in 1825 that the first organized immigration of Norwegians landed in New York harbor on the sloop Restauration.

Neither Erikson nor Columbus reached their intended destination. In one saga Erikson and his group landed in what they referred to as Vinland when their ships, bound for Greenland to introduce Christianity, were blown off course. Columbus assumed he had reached islands of Asia, the reason the islands in the Caribbean are now referred to as the West Indies.

But Erikson arrived in North American nearly 500 years before Columbus reached the Bahamas.

Another version of Erikson’s journey to Vinland posits that Erikson wasn’t the first European to “discover” America. Bjarni Herjólfsson, a merchant in Greenland, claimed to have seen land west of Greenland when his ship was also blown off course, although he never made landfall. When Erikson returned to Greenland after having been blown off course himself, he met with Herjólfsson, purchased his ship, and gathered a crew to journey to discover the western land, the place he had found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines.”1

Erikson’s group probably landed in several spots in what is now Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland. In the 1960s, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse site in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, making a strong case that Norse settlement in North America predated Columbus’s arrival.

As I type these words to describe Leif Erikson Day and the reasons for its establishment, I also must acknowledge that not all the Norse did on the North American continent was worthy of praise. Though their efforts at colonizing the continent did not lead to permanent settlements, they encountered the indigenous people already on the land and both conflict and enslavement followed. Little is known for certain about his activities in North America since he drew no maps and kept no written records of the places he saw. Nonetheless, I must accept the likelihood that indigenous peoples were taken as slaves since possessing slaves, especially from among defeated groups, was common among Norse tribes in Viking times.

1 “Voyages To Vinland The First American Saga Newly Translated And Interpreted”. Alfred A. Knopf. 9 October 1942 – via Internet Archive.

Featured image credit: By Hans Dahl (1849-1937) –, CC0, Link

Holidays Around the World: Mexico’s Independence Day

In the US, or at least in the parts of the US I lived before moving to San Diego—the East Coast and Midwest—most people know two Mexican holidays: Cinco de Mayo (May 5) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). I didn’t realize May 5 wasn’t Mexican Independence Day until we moved to Southern California in 2012. We arrived in late August. One of the first places we checked out on arrival was San Diego Old Town where we saw preparations for Mexican Independence Day coming up in just a couple of weeks.

September 16 marks Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810 when a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, rang the church bell and gave a speech calling for independence from Spain, racial equality, and redistribution of land. The speech became known as Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), and it marked the beginning of a decade-long war with Spain, which finally recognized Mexico as an independent country on August 24, 1821.

The President of Mexico rings the same church bell on the evening before September 16 to mark the beginning of the festivities which include parades, speeches, music, food, and fireworks.

Better known in the US, Cinco de Mayo marks a battle in Mexican history—the defeat by poorly equipped Mexican fighters against the stronger forces of the French Empire in 1862. In Mexico, celebrations are limited to the area around the city of Puebla, where the battle occurred. Celebrations of Cinco de Mayo in the US are much larger than in Mexico. Beer sales on Cinco de Mayo rival the sales numbers during Super Bowl here.

Featured Photo by E Mens on Unsplash

Long Sentence, II

Another example to examine to see how the author used commas to clarify her message. Scroll to the bottom to see where the author inserted 24 commas to set off nonrestrictive phrases and clauses in this 111-word sentence.

In tenth grade, my English teacher handed out a standardized test of punctuation that included an item I argued could be correctly punctuated two ways.

Here’s the sentence (without any punctuation since that’s the way I first saw it):

Mr Brown the postman will see you

I argued that, in addition to the period after the abbreviation Mr. and at the end of the sentence, the sentence needed either one or two commas, depending on who Mr. Brown is:

Mr. Brown, the postman will see you.

with one comma if Mr. Brown is the name of the person the speaker is addressing


Mr. Brown, the postman, will see you.

with two commas If Mr. Brown is the postman and the speaker is addressing another person.

The teacher looked in the teacher’s guide and declared the sentence only needed one comma and that was the only correct answer.

Commas have been my special punctuation interest ever since.

The sentence at the top of this post is one I know was written in English, not translated from a language that may more commonly see long sentences so they end up as long English sentences when translated. It has 111 words with 24 commas, most of which I feel connect rather than separate so that the thoughts in the sentence are held together, to emphasize the staccato beats of emotions the words reflect. This sentence could be a series of much shorter sentences, but I believe the commas make it more powerful as written.

I can point to The Chicago Manual of Style section that defines why each comma is needed. Most of them mark items in a series or separate a nonrestrictive phrase or clause from what it modifies. Many could be replaced by the conjunction and, which would eliminate the need for the commas, but the result would feel like a runon sentence, conveying a sense of rushing ahead, not the series of sobs I feel when reading it as written, sobs that keep me focused on the here and now instead of the there and then.

Commas, in red, included to separate items in a series and to set off nonrestrictive phrases and clauses.

Holidays Around the Country: US Coast Guard Day

This post breaks with the theme of international holidays, but it is in line with the theme of little known holidays or observations.

August 4 marks US Coast Guard Day each year. The Coast Guard is one branch of the US military, charged with protecting our waters and shorelines, that is rarely in the news except when they rescue people from stranded boats (like this account) or apprehend smugglers attempting to bring people or contraband into the country. The media don’t report on US Coast Guard calling up its reservists (yes, there are Coast Guard reservists) to be sent into foreign battles.

Here are some little known facts about the US Coast Guard.

The US Coast Guard has never been part of the Department of Defense.

Congress created the service that would eventually turn into the US Coast Guard on August 4, 1790, as part of the Department of the Treasury. That service, the Revenue Cutter Service, provided with ten cutters, chiefly patroled to ensure enforcement of tariffs on incoming goods.

In 1915, the US Coast Guard was formed from the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the US Life-saving Service.

In 1939, the US Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard, transferring with it responsibility for protecting lighthouses and lightvessels, ships that served as lighthouses.

In 1942, select responsibilities of two other organizations, the Bureau of Navigation and the Steamboat Inspection Service, were transferred to the US Coast Guard.

In 1967, the Coast Guard was moved to the Department of Transportation.

In 2003, it was incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security.

The US Coast Guard’s mission is unique among the military branches.

The Coast Guard is the only military branch charged with saving lives. It is also the only branch with law enforcement and regulatory authority.

Currently, the US Coast Guard has ships, fixed and rotary wing aircraft, and boats that patrol 95,000 miles of coastline as well as protecting ports and the 4.5 million square miles of US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Coast Guard also calls on its Auxiliary of volunteers to help when needed. The Auxiliary is authorized to provide the same services as the US Coast Guard. Like the Coast Guard, the Auxiliary cannot charge for the services they provide.

In addition to active duty and reserve military staff and a civilian component, the US Coast Guard relies on volunteers.

Officers, enlisted persons, reservists, civilians, and volunteers make up the Coast Guard’s staff.

The volunteer, Auxiliary, component comprises a significant difference between the US Coast Guard and the other military branches. Auxiliaries of other military branches provide services to that military branch’s personnel, not to the public on behalf of the service branch.

Many aspects of the US Coast Guard are similar to other military branches.

Like other military branches, the US Coast Guard has an academy to train officer candidates. The goal of the four-year institution is to transform students physically, intellectually, and ethically.

Also like other military branches, attending the US Coast Guard Academy isn’t the only route to enter. High school graduates, those from other branches of the military, as well as people coming from the private sector can enlist. Graduates of other four-year degree programs can apply for an officer’s commission.

The US Coast Guard has its own anthem, “Semper Paratus: Always Ready,” performed below by the All Schools Elementary Honor Orchestra in honor of Ensign Brandon Newman, son of the conductor.

Here’s to US Coast Guard Day on this August 4.

Featured image credit: Photo by Stiven Sanchez on Unsplash

Long Sentences

Scroll down to see where the translator inserted 12 commas in this piece.

One of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where commas belong, don’t belong, or are optional is to look at works of other writers who have had to figure that out for themselves when they wrote long sentences.

The sentence above, from an English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is 123 words long. The version visible above has none of that version’s commas. Note that the translator of Tolstoy’s work in English did not use parentheses or dashes or semicolons to function as separators in place of commas. The only punctuation marks missing from the piece are commas.

Do not be distracted by larger gaps between words and conclude they are clues to where punctuation is missing. The text is justified so all the interword spacing varies, with occasional added spaces to make the lines in both justified versions, one with commas below and one without above, end in the same place.

Inserted commas are in red for easy locating.

I want to be a writer. Where do I start? Redux

Here’s the post that started this series, with content for each question, a starting point to review all the content.

Most important—Don’t be fooled into thinking there is only one way.

There is no single guaranteed path to producing a best selling book. Asking yourself a few questions before you start, after you start, once you finish your first draft, after your book is published, and in the years that follow may help you find the right starting point for you at that moment in time. You might even find more than one place to start.

Here I offer 16 questions to get you to start thinking, with links to more information. All of them are suggestions, not ingredients in a book-making recipe.

Caveat: I list resources here that I know of, but including a resource is not an endorsement. Do your own research into writing coaches, for example, by checking their references before making a commitment.

Sixteen questions to ask and answer if you want to be a writer. Subsequent posts on the dates indicated below will provide links to resources based on your answers to these questions.

Questions requiring research to answer

1. Do you have a story or idea in mind?

Yes. Continue to #2.

No. Stay on this step, or come back to it now and then, until the answer is yes. You can write pieces while you figure this out, but consider it practice. You can read ahead in this list of questions to see what else you need to be prepared to do, but consider it research.

Check out Story and Idea Resources.

2. Do you know who your audience is?

Yes. Continue to #3

No. Do the research to figure that out before you commit to what you write. Again, you can write pieces while you try to figure this out, but consider that honing your skill.

Check out Find Your Audience Resources.

3. Does your audience want books?

Yes. Continue to #4.

No. Perhaps you should write blog posts, journal articles, ezines, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, op ed pieces, or you could create podcasts or YouTube videos. Even if your answer to this question is yes, you’ll probably have to complete many of these activities to market your book. So get a head start.

Check out Find Your Audience Resources.

4. Is your book idea fiction, memoir, or creative nonfiction based on history?

Yes. Continue to #5.

No. Explore requirements for writing nonfiction.

*Tips from publisher and distributor IngramSpark may provide a starting point.

*Josh Bernoff’s Without Bullshit website is an excellent place for nonfiction writers to get tips. Sign up for his newsletter.

Continue to #16.

Questions regarding writing

5. Do you have an outline, summary, or synopsis for your story?

Yes. Continue to #6.

No. Consider whether an outline will help you get started. If it won’t, skip this step and go on to the next one. But realize that at some point, when querying an agent for a fiction book, you’ll need a synopsis, and for a nonfiction work, you’ll need a book proposal; a synopsis, summary, or overview; a detailed table of contents; an author bio; a comp title analysis showing what books are already in the market; an outline as well as the first few chapters for the book proposal. What each agent requires will differ, and you should review the requirements carefully before sending query letters.

6. Have your written a first draft?

Yes. Continue to #7.

No. Check out Writing Your First Draft Resources.

7. Have you had your draft edited by a developmental editor?

Yes. Continue to #8.

No. A developmental editor doesn’t focus on spelling, punctuation, grammar, or style, but rather on consistency and pacing of the story, and may recommend restructuring or leaving out content. A developmental editor may assist at early stages of turning an idea or outline into a draft or once the manuscript is complete.

If you plan to publish your book through a traditional publisher, you may consider skipping this step, but be prepared for your manuscript to be rejected or to go through heavy editing by the publisher’s chosen editor in that case. See Why You Need an Editor and Stages of Editing from the San Diego Professional Editors Network.

Continue to #8.

8. Have you had your draft reviewed by beta readers or manuscript reviewers?

Yes. Continue to #9.

No. Check out Pre-Publication Reviewer Resources.

Questions regarding book production

9. Do you want to publish your book through a traditional publisher?

Yes. Continue to #11.

No. If you want your books to be available in libraries and schools, reconsider whether you should publish your book independently. Libraries and schools have requirements that are difficult for authors of indie published books to meet.

Indie publication may be the right choice if it isn’t important that the book be available in libraries or schools or if the deadline for publication is short. But be aware that the author must do all the work of producing the book or the author may need a book shepherd or work with a hybrid publisher to ensure distribution options are in place for bookstores, libraries, and schools to order them. See #10.

Check out these requirements on the topic of independent publishing.

10. Do you know what indie authors must do for themselves?

Yes. Continue with #11.

No. An indie author must be prepared to handle the following or to hire someone to handle them.

*Obtain ISBNs for each version of the book: hard cover paperback, ebook, and audio book.

*Engage a professional cover designer. The same design can be used for both hardcopy and ebook, but an audio book requires a separate square design.

*Engage a professional copy editor. This is necessary even if a developmental editor has reviewed the book. I offer copy editing and proofreading services. I hope you’ll think of me when you reach this stage.

*Engage a professional book interior designer. The layout for the hardcopy book may not work for the ebook. Don’t assume one design fits all.

*Engage a professional proofreader. This last review should catch errors that may have been introduced when the copy edits were incorpoarated or overlooked at the time of copy edit. This step is especially important for nonfiction books with tables, graphs, figures, indexes, bibliographies, footnotes, and endnotes.

*Consider whether you should engage a professional indexer (for nonfiction in particular).

*Line up Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) reviewers.

*Engage professional web designer for marketing and publiity. Your website should be the place all marketing efforts bring potential customers to make the ask to buy the book.

*Line up Launch Team members to promote the book in advance of book launch and to amplify your efforst after the books hasl launched.

*Go back and review #1 through #9.

Continue with #11.

11. Do you have an agent?

Yes. Continue with #12.

No. You can reach out to publishers and editors without an agent, but you must do the work of an agent, including learning what’s involved in writing a query letter. Research agents to find those who handle the type of book you’re writing. Follow the guidelines for what the agent wants in, or with, a query letter. Have a lawyer review any proposed contracts with agents. Other resources to consider follow.

*From Jane Friedman, How to find a literary agent for your book.
*From Writer’s Digest, How to find a literary agent: finding agents appropriate for your writing.
*From The Write Life, How to find a literary agent: a comprehensive guide for aspiring authors.

Questions regarding marketing and publicity

12. Has your agent sold the publishing rights for your book?

Yes. Continue to #13.

No. Depending on how much time your agent has had to sell the rights to your book, consider whether a different agent may be a better fit for your book. Go back and review #11.

13. Do you have a marketing plan for the lead up to the launch of your book?

. Continue to #14.

No. Consider hiring a publicist or learning more about what is required for a book launch marketing strategy.

14. Has the book been published?

Yes. Continue to #15.

No. Continue working with your agent, publisher, and publicist or do you own research, to learn what you will have to do for marketing the book before and after publication.

Review the Pre-Publication Reviewer Resources.

Review the Independent Publishing Requirements.

15. Do you have a marketing plan for the continued promotion of the book?

Yes. Congratulations. Follow your plan. Adapt it where necessary. You might think you are done, but you should write another book or put together auxiliary products or services to share or sell to the readers of your book.

No. Consider hiring a publicist, or do your own research to learn more about after-publication marketing.

Check out Marketing Plan Resources.

Nonfiction research

16. Do others consider you an expert on the topic of your nonfiction book?

Yes. Your recognition as an expert may make publishing through a traditional publisher possible. One disincentive for this route is the length of time it will take to complete the project.

Go to #5.

No. If you plan to use the book to market your business or as gifts for current or potential customers, the indie publishing route is a possibility for you.

Review Independent Publishing Requirements.

Featured image credit: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

#16 Do others consider you an expert on the topic for your nonfiction book?

Yes. Your recognition as an expert may make publishing through a traditional publisher possible. One disincentive for this route is the length of time it will take to complete the project.

Go to #5.

No. If you plan to use the book to market your business or as gifts for current or potential customers, the indie publishing route is a possibility for you.

Review Independent Publishing Requirements.

Featured image credit: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash