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.

Let's autumn

It’s finally rained in Los Angeles, just a few days. That cooled the air.

Work has been busy, and it cut into my writing time like a hot knife through butter. As can happen when things get busy, I began to wonder why I was writing at all. It seemed like almost no one cared, and I was not sure I did either. Today, though I tore apart my apartment because I didn’t remember where I had put my notebook that contains the first half of Kabuki-ish. I found it, sandwiched between a Vietnamese cookbook and a French restaurant book. As I put my apartment back together, I found myself thinking about the last couple months, some of the nicer things.

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A picture perfect racecar design studio the morning of a VR racing tournament.

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Crab cakes and fried chicken church dinner with endless dishes.

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The LA County Fair, an obscene display of fried foods.

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me with surprise appearance by John Ham. A plum cake. Waffles with strawberry jam made on a brand new waffle iron, gifted by a friend. Photographing my charm collection for Curios.

Let’s Jimbocho

I just watched Night is Short, Walk on Girl. There’s the taste of red wine lingering in my mouth as I purse my lips and try to remember, but there’s this scene where the heroine enters a used book fair, at night, to search for a book she loved as a child, and she runs into this menace of a little boy. He’s sticking vanilla ice cream cones on people’s penises and swapping the price tags on books. He’s the god of used books, it turns out, and he wants her help to put a collector’s book collection back in circulation so more people can enjoy them. As he swaps the prices on books, he explains—in a beautiful, degrees of Kevin Bacon, Wikipedia challenge mania—how a crazy assortment of famous nineteenth and twentieth century authors from Europe to Japan are related. I found myself laughing as we somehow leapt from Doyle to Dumas to Tanizaki and every author in between—and the god says that all books are one book. 

Anyway, the scene is in Kyoto, but when I think of books in Japan, I think of Jimbocho, or, Books Endo (which has nothing to do with books at all). Jimbocho is the famous used book, booksellers’ district in Tokyo. I had the opportunity to be shown around by a kindly book historian. He brought me to a series of shops where the old books reached the ceiling, bound in soft covers of the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries. Scrolls in boxes. 

The oldest continually operating bookseller in Jimbocho has been in business since the late nineteenth century. It’s a family business. When I walked inside, the books were stored in piles on the shelves, with protruding white labels in big handwritten print announcing what the series was. When I was introduced to the owner, I laughed at the extraordinary shelves and asked her how it was organized. She laughed too. “When there’s an earthquake, we’re going to be in trouble.”  

It looked like something out of a woodblock print, one of the old Edo bookstores. Maybe my imagination is getting carried away, or maybe the bookshop carried away my imagination. It’s hard to say. We flipped through prints and rare books. Then we went to more shops and saw more rare books. There’s a weekly auction in the district where booksellers go to purchase the latest, and it ends up in the shops soon after. There are popular topics, where the books barely last a day or two. An early volume, in Japanese, on making Western food flew out of the store. It seems food is popular, even old food.  

Soeaking of food, we went out for sushi afterwards, ordering plates of big summer oysters, fried corn tempura, sashimi, and cold sake.  

The old books in Japan do not have that old smell. It has to do with the paper material. It’s strange to hold an old book in your hand and smell the spine and find nothing. Quite baffling. But it’s a reminder that books, what they are made of, the way we store and sell them, the people that love them—we change. All the same, there’s a lovely imaginary thread tied to the ends of our fingers as we hold books, stretching back in time around the fingers of readers before. What a thing. Thank you Jimbocho. 

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Also, I saw a nice bitchy looking man in one of the stores and he reminds me of Ayame. Look at that stare. Those narrowed eyes. He has found someone severely lacking and cannot hide it. Someone send me $700 so I can stick him on my wall. 

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Let’s Zaimokuza

When making up a story, there’s a useful, simple concept we learned in writing classes: your characters should want things. The character wants something, but he faces obstacles in order to get it. This is a good tool, especially for building narratives: interesting obstacles, battles, enemies. 

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Today I woke up and went to Kamakura, a city about an hour south of Tokyo. Kamakura was the warrior capital of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and today it’s a popular day trip from the city. This wasn’t my first time to Kamakura. I’ve been going on the weekends, waking up early and taking the trains while they’re still almost empty. When I arrive, the cicadas are singing, but the full, heavy heat of the day hasn’t settled. There’s a breakfast place I like near the station where they do teishoku, set meals served on a tray. I always get the same thing: salted grillled mackerel, rice, pickles. The miso soup is made with a white miso and grilled Summer vegetables from the daily famers’ market next door: green bell peppers, tomatoes, soft onion. The pickles are made in rice bran, which gives them a funkiness I’m not sure I like, but it pairs well with everything else. The little side dish today was hijiki, a type of black seaweed, beans. The rice is always pink, studded with beans and bits of other grains. It’s a small breakfast place, but it has wonderfully big windows that let in the morning light on the wooden counter where solo diners like me sit. When I finish eating everything, I wash it all down with some hot herbal tea. 

Another breakfast.  

Another breakfast.  

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This diner gets its donuts from Betsubara Donuts, a tiny one-room shop and kitchen tucked away in a residential neighborhood not far from the station. Betsubara makes the best donuts in Japan. They are big, with a delightful chew, and thoughtfully chosen glazes. They are not overly sweet donuts. The rum raisin donut is studded with fat, rum soaked raisins. The passion fruit donut glaze contained crunchy seeds that constructed with the sweet, chewy dough, and my recent love was an ume donut, topped with a sweet-sour plum glaze. They fry the donuts four at a time in two pots on the stove, then glaze them and place them in the glass case at the front of the “store.” Betsubara Donuts closes in August for a well-earned vacation, so I had to make one last visit this week to say farewell and order a batch to take with me. 

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The first time I went there, I bought a couple donuts and walked down to the beach of Zaimokuza. I pulled out the rum raisin donut, with the sea breeze blowing, and I took a single bite. It was a magical moment. The sun was hot, and I was grinning. The best donut, I found myself thinking, I must take a picture. 

As I turned the donut so that it caught the light just so with the ocean in the background, just as I was about to snap a picture of the rum raisin donut, a hawk swooped down and snatched it from my hand. In one bewildering second, the donut was gone.  

The hawk flew off with the donut in its little white bag held fast in its talons, but it soon got into an aerial battle with another hawk and some crows. I watched as my donut fell from the sky and bounced against the roof of a surf shack. Never to be seen again. 

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If you walk south from Betsubara, you’ll run into the coastal highway, but before you pass under the road to go to the beach, there’s a little coffee shop tucked away. It’s a writing spot. They put big chunks of cut ice in the drinks, which is especially pretty when the weather is hot like it is now. 

A man and woman set up an old, hand-cranked shaved ice machine in front of Milk Stand and Coffee. I ordered the plum and sweet milk shaved ice before heading inside to settle at a worn table to write.

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I had gone swimming and washed off. Walked in the sun to the coffee shop. I don’t think there are better conditions to eat shaved ice. 

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It was a simple, almost perfect day. 

One of the problems with the clear motivation driven model is that sometimes we do not know exactly what we want (or need). It’s hard. I feel like we are mostly just fumbling and wandering, trying to determine what we want and then how we can get it, if we can at all. But it’s harder to tell those kinds of stories. 

I didn’t know how much I needed that day by the ocean until I was sitting at that coffee shop table, shaved ice in hand.