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.

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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