Let's spring... into action

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by  Ling Luo .

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by Ling Luo.

This past week a group of Japanese tea ceremony practitioners visited my university, and we got to watch a demonstration. They brought tea bowls with them from Osaka, decorated with cherry blossoms. The flowers have been blooming in some parts of Japan—and in Los Angeles too.

So, when I was going to open this blog post, I went through my omamori collection to see about a charm with a cherry blossom motif. There were a few pink ones, but to my surprise, there was only one charm with a sakura design… and it is the first one I ever purchased. I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was my first time in Japan. I could read and write the alphabets, a smattering of kanji, but I could barely string a spoken sentence together.

We visited Kiyomizudera, a big temple complex in Kyoto famous for its healing waters and view overlooking the city from the eastern mountains. I bought the charm by myself and attached it to my belt loop, because I had no bag. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I jangled when I walked, and my companions joked that they’d always be able to find me, like a lost cat. I did get lost on that trip, in a lot of ways. But, I’ve still found my way back. Something must have worked.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

So, in the spirit of the cherry blossom theme, I went into my photos and discovered that I did not have many cherry blossom pictures either. But I did see a couple taken in Nagoya, with the reconstructed castle in the background, during an illumination, which is when a site puts up lights and lanterns and permits guests after dark.

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Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

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In Southern California, it has rained more than usual. As a result, in the past couple weeks, the California poppies have been blooming at spots in the mountains. Last week, an entire small town had to shut down the highways because so many people were coming in and overwhelming everything.

I woke up early this morning and a friend and I drove a few hours north of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park known for the flowers. It was as if someone had split orange highlighter ink on the hills. There were little brown butterflies who were not interested in the poppies; stubby yellow flowers and purple blossoms. The mountains, ordinarily brown and dry, had turned a warm green. Spring has come to Southern California, marked by the native poppies with that silky glimmer to their orange petals.

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As I walked the trails, I thought about how difficult it was to describe what I was seeing. Was it orange highlighter ink splattered? Split? If I called the petals “silky” to explain that gleaming line where the sunlight hits the curve of the petal, would anyone understand that? Or would they assume “silky” referred to touch? So, I had to add “glimmer,” but that’s not quite right either. English is difficult. It also contains gaps of darkness, where words ought to be.

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Speaking of gaps of darkness, writing Kabuki-ish continues in fits and starts. This past week I wrote a romantic scene that has been on the ol’ To Do for weeks. It took three days to write. I had a problem with the scene that was not plot or writing, but primarily a failure of process and my own imagination. I knew that it was a date scene, a romantic scene, like one in a musical where a character comes around and realizes they’re in love. My imagination had supplied a haze. Romance, in my imagination sometimes, is a song. It’s a color. It’s a wordless swell.

This is all to say that I had a bullet point in my Outline that was basically, “Enkô and Ayame go on a date. Ayame realizes he has feelings for Enkô.” Or, something to that effect. To put it even more bluntly, this was lazy planning on my part. This is not, it must be said, the first time I’ve run into this problem.

So, there’s a date scene, and I haven’t done the imaginative work to imagine the specifics. And, dates are all specifics. It’s funny, because romance is a sensation, a haze, but it is built on piles of terribly specific details. So, I sat down to try and think of what those were. It was clear, when I began this process, that I would not be writing this like a normal scene. (I tried to write sentences, got distracted multiple times, and gave up). It’s not giving up. It’s like backing up to realign your car when parking.

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I began to try and get down to the gritty details, the foundation of the scene really. It was springtime. This would be a springtime scene. What is springtime? I listed words. Eventually, the words started spinning out into phrases. One of the considerations I have to make with Kabuki-ish is whether the prose is going to be written in a quasi-rhyming, beat-driven manner. There are a few scenes written in that way. If I like a word, I try to guess a useful word with a parallel sound. Eventually, I decided to not do that mode for the scene, deciding on straight prose style. I could begin to imagine the setting.

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I knew what poem I wanted to adapt. At one point in the scene, Ayame sings while Enkô dances for a small crowd on a bridge. My brain went to one of the opening poems of the Man’yōshū, a romantic poem that would be interesting here. At this point, Ayame thinks Enkô is a boy. Furthermore, at least in the first draft, this scene runs entirely from Ayame’s perspective, which means that Enkô is rocking male pronouns, we don’t see Okuni, and Ayame has a lot to sort through emotionally, even without all this stuff he does not know. One of the themes that this draft in particular has grappled with, is the idea that gender is performed and perceived. There’s a fluidity, yes, but a fluidity from these two categories.

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So, when Ayame sings like a man who rules supreme over his land of theaters and pleasure quarters, there’s something else going on here with gender too. He sings this song, unwittingly, to a woman performing and perceived as a man.

So, over two more days, I took the pieces and strung them like beads into a complete scene. I feel like with these kinds of scenes, it can be hard to see to what degree it works, tonally and emotionally. I had to correct the pronouns on Enkô so many times. I may decide against shifting them in the second draft, but it makes sense the way it is. We’ll see!

My favorite scenes are ones that are miniature novels. They begin with a problem, the problem worsens, and then there is a resolution of some sort for the problem. In this scene, it’s not about the romance. I mean, it is. But it’s about Ayame coming to terms with the nature of his fame, his relationship with his fans and patrons, and the lack of trust he comes to realize he has with them. This trust being shifted to Enkô is the backbone of the scene. Trust, ideally, is the backbone of a great romance.

I mean, obviously there’s a lot he doesn’t know, and that’s a problem for another chapter. But this was a good challenge to work through this week. “A problem for another chapter,” I write. Who knows when this book will be done? Maybe the poppies know.

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Let's Happy New Year

Well, it was the Lunar New Year, last week, I think. It is the year of the Boar, and my boar stumbled in late to the party. Los Angeles had a big parade celebrating the New Year in China Town. It’s been raining for weeks, and the weather is unseasonably cool, but the skies turned blue for the dancing dragons and the big parade. As we walked towards the downtown area, we passed a group in kilts with bagpipes who had just finished their march on the parade route. There were school marching bands, and baton-twirlers, and local politicians riding in cars and waving.

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I have been busy with my qualifying exams reading, which amounts to about six books a week, and I have not had much time for writing or even reading fiction. So, when I see the parade, I think of Confucius, strangely enough, and the significance he places on rites. Rites in the modern world, in America perhaps, are celebrations and mourning, like funerals, and maybe this parade. The cynical academic would call such rites “fraught with meaning”—”fraught” meant to convey a displeasure over gathering over something that is likely imperfect or lacking at some point in time or another. I don’t mean to say that there is a dark past to the parade in Chinatown. Just that when I saw the little children in the karate outfits or the middle-aged man with his bagpipe, I was filled with a sense of happiness that for some accident of the heaven bodies, some accident of history, we were all on this street celebrating together.

Despite being a fairly cynical person, actually, I feel the same way about Valentine’s Day. Married, dating, single, lost in some polyamorous triangle, happily or miserably—to treat oneself or a loved one to a chocolate lava cake, a card, a glass of wine, or a tableful of waffles, those are things worth doing. It is nice to have reasons to celebrate, even if they are merely “societal constructions” (what isn’t?) or a “corporate holiday” (so, what?).

To celebrate is to enjoy life, enjoy a moment with someone else. It is nice to have a reason to. Or, at least to do something peculiar on a certain day, that has its pleasures. I think I realized this and embraced holidays while in Japan when I realized that Mother’s Day was very much a very modern creation but it was embraced with such enthusiasm that I could not help but enjoy it too. I found myself smiling at the red carnations in the shop windows, the “traditional” flower to give on Mother’s Day or even the most rabidly commercial displays because it somehow felt like we were all celebrating something together, even if it were only by walking past carnations.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

In other news, I am officially on notebook three of Kabuki-ish. It is the novel that will not die, the story that will not shrink. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I have completely given up on any kind of deadline. It is okay, I whispered to myself as I stood in the bookshop, purchasing the new notebook. It is okay.

This morning I woke up and went to the coffee shop and wrote a passage that I suspect will make it into the final draft:

He felt a moment of unease, unsettling familiarity at that particular look of fear. He had seen it on a prostitute confronting her mistress behind the bars of the brothel; Enkō in the burning clearing as she tried to tell him what happened, as if she could; himself, in that room in the castle when he could speak the truth, but found himself trapped against the great, immovable boulder of authority which laid against the mountain so immense and a constant feature of his every living moment that when confronted and told—speak—to speak, he was being told to move that boulder with the knowledge that even if he managed to shift a single pebble beneath it, the boulder would simply roll over and crush him. Umehito knew that look of fear.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the longest sentences I believe I have ever written.

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Meanwhile, I am updating a new page, Curios, on Japanese charms called omamori. I have been promising myself for years that I would photograph my collection and share them online. This little boar is not officially in the collection. A friend of mine found him at a yard sale. He appears to be a bell, but at some point he was broken and lost the jangle inside that makes him jingle and then was glued back together. But, he is still a boar nonetheless!

Let's walk in some mountains

I am sick, which seems like the best time to reflect on nice things that have happened. Sometimes it can be hard to do that, even when you recognize that you have it pretty good. I have a roof over my head, food, and clothes, which is more than can be said for the naked man running around my neighborhood yesterday.

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Right about when the fires were around Los Angeles, I hopped in the car with a friend and we drove out into the mountains, stopping only for a donut break at the famous Donut Man. The shop is well-known for its strawberry donut, where a donut is split like a sandwich and stuffed with fresh berries when they’re in season. Unfortunately, they were not in season, so we settled for the next best thing: the famous tiger tails, which is a swirl of chocolate and vanilla dough.

Out in the mountains, the air was cleaner, but dry as a match box. We holed up in a cabin in Idylwild, like a couple of gophers, sitting around the gas stove and listening to records. I read about medieval statues and drank tea, only to stop and remark how cold it was, like some forgetful grandmother.

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Idylwild is a little town, a place for locals and for weekenders from the city with thick trees, boulders, and mountains. Little wooden and trailer businesses, cozy clusters of t-shirts shops, fudge, and small gifts. We woke up and had breakfast at Tommy’s Kitchen. It seemed like everyone walked in for the weekend breakfast, a continuously refreshed buffet of northern european dishes, salmon and capiers, eggs, sausages, waffles, and little pancakes. There were fresh pastries: little cakes studded with fat raisins and topped with pastry cream, apple strudel, coffee cakes, strawberry tarts, and eclairs. Roaming waitresses refilled everyone’s tea and coffee. We sat outdoors on the patio with everyone (and the menagerie of dogs) to gaze up at the San Bernadino mountains over our plates. A musician played his harp in the corner.

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The mountains themselves were a little different from the brunch. We clambered around rocks through hiking trails. There were baby squirrels. I convinced myself that I could attempt bouldering, which is just a fancy way of climbing up on big rocks. They were craggy, brittle rocks that caught easily on my shoes and gripped my hands, but could also tear up your fingers if you made a bad move. When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a geologist, because I liked collecting rocks. Now, I know that would not have been the right path for me, but I wish I had at least the vocabulary to describe all the different crags and swirls of color. My dad took a geology class in college, and he said it’s a lot of chemistry; chemistry was a disaster for me. I wrote my first fantasy novel during chemistry. And then, at the end of the semester when my teacher handed back my final exam, I burst into tears like an overcome damsel. So, rock-collecting.

We saw birds too, and became so quiet in the hopes they would fly close. At one of the nature centers, we sat on a bench beside the main bird feeder, watching. There were finches and sparrows and all manner of birds, some slim and speedy, others like fluffy ping-pong balls. My favorite was the Stellar Jay, a large black and blue bird with a tuft on his head. When we hiked back to the car, birds zoomed overheard, back and forth between trees. Their movement caught us in place, like magic threads that forced us to become their audience.

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Now, I suppose if any of you ever find yourselves in Idylwild, and you are of age, the winery there is quite good. There was local art on the walls—oils of the mountains, pumas, wood carvings and gleaming glasswork—and as I walked around sipping a cold, bright white, I watched the owner waft steam into dozens of wine glasses, which he then carefully wiped with a soft cloth. Apparently, that is the best way to finish cleaning a wine glass. The internet is incredible, but I worry about learning the things I’ll never think to search for. I would never think to google how to best clean a wine glass to get the rid of the dried droplets. But, now I know.

Apparently, the town’s mayor is a dog. This does not seem a terribly fair campaign for the humans.

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On our way away from Idylwild, we stopped at the local town bakery, which was quite nice, although little more than a trailer with assorted lawn furniture out back for sitting. What more does one need for sitting anyway? We ate sandwiches and gazed up at the pines, the mountains. A stray stellar jay, before the barking of a dog sent him flying.

I confess that I did no writing, not really, in Idylwild. I made a Boston cream pie, but no words of Kabuki-ish. I have not been a very good writer lately. I am almost to the end of a second notebook, and as I scribble my way through a teahouse date between actors (that was this morning) I stare at the few remaining pages in the notebook, the few days left in 2018, and rub my head in bafflement. I should have planned better. But as I’ve been sick these last days, I’ve slipped into these moments of unhappy despair. Why am I writing this book that I don’t think anyone will want to read? Why am I writing at all? It’s never going to make any real money! You don’t write fantasy for respect either. They’ll respect you when you’re dead—or maybe Tolkien. But I don’t think that happened until he died? Right?

No one is going to give George R. R. Martin full-throated respect until he is dead and someone goes through his desk and tapes together the next Game of Thrones book. We kick him around now—at least he’s laughing all the way to the bank—but he’ll be like Tolkien when he’s gone.

And, that’s it! He’s our most famous living fantasy writer! He got a song and dance sequence on South Park with waggling penises.

Think about it. If I wanted respect while I’m actually alive, I would write literary fiction, or—wait for it—really heavy science fiction. We always give science fiction more respect. It’s like the STEM of fiction, replete with brainy, technological inspiration and sophisticated commentary on the present or future of humanity. Wow. Such. Weight. Science fiction gets a defensive brigade like the bros on Reddit that will tell you that you studied the wrong thing in college (like, not CS, probably). Science fiction gets forgiven even when it’s bad, when it’s full of talking boobs, dinosaurs and time travel—I hate time travel. Actually, hold that thought. I’ll take the talking boobs and dinosaurs. Hold the time travel.

If science fiction is utterly incomprehensible, it gets defenders. It’s fascinating, like academics defending theorists you’re not entirely convinced they understand. Like, if you throw enough science fiction trope noodles at the wall, something is bound to stick, to resonate with someone who will defend it.

Fantasy is like the humanities of genre fiction. It’s English and History. You tell people you’re an English major and they ask, “What are you going to do with that?”

Fantasy is the “What are we going to do with that?” of societal-oriented fiction. (Also, people who ask that question. The next person who asks me that question is going to get the answer, “Found a startup where I charge people for asking that question.”)

You say you write fantasy, they think magic and dragons, and your parent’s elderly friend becomes all shifty in his seat. You say science fiction, they think robots and that’s eh, that’s okay. I have a robot vacuum. They think, perhaps the lady has some deep societal thoughts to express on the future of automation.

“Perhaps”, this lady says with a thoughtful nod as she drinks her wine.

The last bit of science fiction I wrote was a pitch for a sitcom was about a tech CEO with a robot fetish and two female engineers desperate for work who con him into thinking that one of them is a realistic robot prototype. But in reality they are still working on it. Ex Machina meets Tootsie. I think I deserve millions of dollars, but I digress.

I could digress even more here, but I won’t.

My point is, there’s no assumption of thoughtful fantasy. They assume elves and dwarves and recycled Tolkien. To be fair, there’s a lot of that and I can’t totally blame them, but most of science fiction is recycled Stair Trek-Wars drivel. But with fantasy, it is so often looking at the past. Our worlds are frequently based in the past. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, by the way. Tolkien was a medievalist, old and middle languages and philology. When I read the Lord of the Rings, complete with kings and forces indifferent to evil about to destroy the world (but maybe not their corner), I can’t help but remember that Tolkien fought in World War II. I know it’s not about that war, but perhaps about the role that even the smallest people can play.

But, what I want to say is that speculating and manipulating the past demands just as respect as the future. If anything, more so, because by creating worlds from past molds, we create more interpretations about what happened and what our actions mean today. When we look to the past and interrogate people, people as they were even in a speculative sense, there is a great value. In the same sense, history has great value, as it is the study that gives meaning to and seeks to understand humanity’s existence.

Of course, humanity and science fiction do not have to have people as characters, true. But it is written by humans, for humans, so no doubt there is going to be a bit of interpretative humanity in there.

It is late. I am back in the city, away from the mountains, and I wish the writing was easier. I wish I felt like someone cared. What a cry for help that sentence is, but it is true. I do not feel the urge to lie here.

It is late, and the coyotes are making a real racket. It’s time for bed.







Let's vend poems

This past weekend, I went to a small press and artist fair in China Town. There was a press that printed pictures on paper made from sugar cane, neon prints, and poetry. My favorite spot was a little press that sold miniature prints, books, and buttons in a capsule machine. I got a print of a palm tree next to a dumpster at sunset. Then we wandered over to a Chinese restaurant for fried rice, slippery greasy beef, and garlicky green beans. “Garlicky” is one of my favorite adjectives, I think. It’s so perfect that I sometimes doubt it’s an approved, “real” word.