Saturday, April 26, 2014

Every Dream Needs A Sherpa

On Friday, April 18th, while I was beginning my long weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim, California, a high altitude avalanche occurred in what’s known as the Khumbu Ice Fall, considered to be one of the most dangerous and difficult of the Everest climb.  
A team of sherpas, the native guides that are hired by every team that tries to climb Everest, was up early, preparing the way for the climbers that had hired them.  Twelve of them were killed and three injured during the avalanche.  The death toll would eventually reach sixteen, making this climbing season, with this one accident, the deadliest on record.  The previously most deadly year was 1996, when eight people died in one accident and seven more were killed throughout the rest of the season for a total of 15 deaths.
And April is considered the start of the climbing season.  
I didn’t hear about this story until later in the week.  When it happened, I was attending WonderCon and in the midst of a typical information blackout one experiences when at the convention.  The only thing I kept track of in the outside world was the box scores of the games the Dodgers were playing.  
In my last blog entry, I wrote about why it was I attended WonderCon.  For years I’ve only gone to two events during convention season (basically from April to September, about twice as long as the Everest climbing season, which is from April to June): ComicCon in San Diego and WorldCon, in whatever city in the world it might be that year.  My routine is so fixed that even people at work, who have no interest in comic books, science fiction and the like, know when these conventions take place, and where in terms of WorldCon, due to my scheduled vacations.  Last week, I was thinking that I was looking for a feeling of accomplishment.  Achieving something.  Celebrating my past successes in getting my stories published, or laying the groundwork for getting something published in the future.  Sort of like what the sherpas were doing the day the avalanche started to roll, only a lot less physically dangerous.
Did you know that the sherpas were the lowest level of the old caste system?  I found this out from someone born in Nepal that works for the same company as I do.  I asked her about sherpas after listening to news stories about them.  “They weren’t untouchable, though!” she insisted after describing where their caste stood.  She then told me a story about how untouchables once came to her family home when she was a girl.  Her mother, her family was chhetri or warrior caste, the second highest level, would not allow them on to her porch, and she had the toilets (which were outside) cleaned after they left.  
Sherpas get paid about five thousand dollars a climbing season.  This is eight times the average annual income in Nepal.  So they can get wealthy, relatively speaking, carrying other people’s stuff up the side of the mountain, the same activity that put them so low in the ancient system.  That’s capitalism for you, huh?  
Getting back to WonderCon, though...  I’m rethinking what I wrote last week.  I think I went to the convention to increase my immersion in the geeky things I’ve always enjoyed.  “Real Life,” as represented by my job, financial concerns, retirement on an ever closer horizon, has increased its pull upon my consciousness and in my behavior as a result.  I spend longer hours at work, which leaves me less time for writing, or even basic concerns like going to the gym.  Subconsciously, I think I was feeling that two conventions a year wasn’t going to be enough for me.  I needed more time away from real concerns to recharge my batteries.  
I don’t think WonderCon did that completely.  It definitely staunched the bleeding, so to speak.  But I still feel the need for an influx of energy.  
Sherpas use energy very efficiently.  Scientists believe its a result of being descended from people who have lived for centuries at such high altitudes.  A sherpa, while climbing a mountain, will only use about 3,600 kilocalories a day.  A bicyclist riding in the Tour de France will burn about 7,000 to 8,000 kilocalories a day.  They get a lot of work out of the energy they spend, sherpas do.  
The news story is fascinating to me in a number of ways.  It is enlightened me about a people I’ve heard about for years, but never appreciated.  Their history, and the little bit about their culture that I’ve learned about is like something from a fantasy novel, or from a very alien world.  
What I’m seeing right now, though, is that it is emblematic to the life of everyone that has a dream.  
To able to climb to the top of the mountain, to stand on the highest peak on the planet, is a laudable dream.  I understand and appreciate it, and in my wildest fantasies, where I don’t have to go through the years of training and conditioning to achieve it, I can image myself doing it, looking out across the surface of the globe and seeing everything that exists below you.  
But real life makes its demands.  Especially if you are trying to climb above and reach some goal or dream.  The sherpas are the blood, bone and sinew of the dreams of many a climber.  They are the element that make the fantasy of standing on top of the world real.  
There is something in there, I think.  I’m sensing a connection that I can’t fully elaborate on just yet.  It’s a feeling that I have to find my personal sherpas and make sure they’re doing all right before an avalanche of a different sort sweeps them away.  
The sherpas are threatening to go on strike.  It threatens the entire climbing season for 2014.  They’re asking for more pay and benefits.  The one item that has stayed with me is an increase of the death benefits paid to the families of sherpas that die in accidents like this.  It is currently $400.  The sherpas want it increased to $10,000.  The Nepalese government charges an individual climber $25,000 to climb Everest.  About a thousand people a year make the attempt, with a little over half reaching the summit.
I think the sherpas should get paid more.  It’s a small price to pay to achieve the dream of standing on top of the world.  I’m going to treat the sherpas of my dream better.  Once I find out who or what they are.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why WonderCon?

Yesterday, before leaving the office, I told the supervisor of the Invoicing Department that I would be out on Friday and Monday.
"Where are you going, Erick?"  The Invoicing Supervisor is somewhat nosey and always asks me what my plans are, even on the eve of normal weekends.  
"I'm going to Anaheim.  I'm attending WonderCon this year."  
"WonderCon?"  She screwed up her face and looked up at me.  For a moment I was in a Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon failed to get a ticket to go to Comic-Con in San Diego, and had to settle on WonderCon.  "Why are you doing that?  You don't go to WonderCon.  You go to Comic-Con and WorldCon.  Why are you going to WonderCon?" 
After getting over the minor surprise that she knew my routine all that well, I fumbled about for an answer for a bit and came up with, "Because...  I want to.  That's why."  
I grabbed my stuff and left work, driving straight to Anaheim and my hotel next to the convention center.  My colleague's question started a meandering sort of consideration in my brain.  What did I want to accomplish at WonderCon?  Why was I adding it to my routine of two conventions a year.  Just because I wanted the extra time off?  Just because I thought it would be fun?  Both were true, but both seemed to be rationalizations for something else.  
For the other conventions I go to, Comic-Con and WorldCon, I have had bigger reasons.  In the past, I went to Comic-Con to meet with the people publishing my comic books and to stay in touch with the other creators I knew.  With WorldCon it was to meet with people in science fiction field where I was spending most of my creative time in recent years.  I have noticed that Comic-Con has become more of a habit, and the excuse to go to places I've never been to before, like Yokohama, Japan and Sydney, Australia in the past and London this year, as well as see a growing number of WorldCon-going friends, have become stronger motivations.  Was WonderCon meant to make up for something?  
Here are the events that have defined the experience thus far.  
The Announcement Board.
This isn't a WonderCon associated thing, except that I wouldn't have seen it had I not come to the convention.  
In the lobby of my hotel, the day I arrived, I spotted this announcement board for a tour group that had been staying there: 

It's in Japanese.  It was dated that morning.  I stood there and tried to read it.  Morning Call for the group was at 6:30.  Breakfast was 7:00 to 8:15.  Everyone would gather right after breakfast at 8:15 (Have your Luggage!).  They would depart at 8:30.  Today was the day they would sort the luggage.  And absolutely...  Something I couldn't make out about their passports, wallets/purses and cell phones.  I assumed it was something about not forgetting these items, but I couldn't make out the kanji.  
I felt good, though, about being able to read that much.  I almost got through the whole thing.  On the off-chance I might run into one of them, I put on one of my kanji t-shirts, the one that read, "Samurai."  
I later released that the group was long gone, having departed at 8:30 that morning.  
What's Hot in YA Fiction?  
This was the first panel I went to at WonderCon.  A large panel of writers and at least one artist working in the field.  It was the panel that interested me most in the programing listing for the first day.  
One of the panelist talked about how she liked writing YA fiction more that regular adult fiction because one could, "lay out emotions straight.  Thick.  Be more reckless.  These are teenagers, right?"  Another author, Alyson Noel, author of a series called, The Immortals, talked about how she took the tragedies going on her life (five close family members dying within six months and her husband contracting leukemia) and poured it into her writing.  "I let my characters deal with that stuff.  I didn't want to."  Someone asked a question about all the love triangles that appear in YA, which got the response that love triangles need to be about choosing a life for oneself.  "Life with one will be different than life with the other, right?"  This made sense to me.  YA, the panel seemed to agree on, was about stories where the characters defined themselves.  
Defining oneself.  Huh.  A good thing to do, I suppose.  Something a teenager needs to do, for sure.  But a middle aged production manager?  Most of the audience were much older than the intended YA audience, so maybe self-definition is an issue for us all.  
The Art of the Pitch.
Not the panel I was expecting it to be.  It was a collection of people from the Disney/ABC Talent Development program, graduates and people that ran it, talking about their experiences.  They did give advice on pitching in general.  One should find the audience for the story; what in the story would appeal to people outside the genre.  You should take your life and truncate it into sentences.  Tailor the pitch to the person you're talking to.  Put your personal background into the pitch, especially if it entails conflict or even misery.  That's conflict.  Stories need conflict.  
You're not pitching a story.  You're pitching yourself as someone to work with.  That sounded like an important thing to remember.  One of the panelist, who started as a child actor, went into working on the set, then later came out as a director and writer told everyone something his mother told him when he was auditioning for roles as a child.  "They may not be looking for you.  But you are the only you there is, so if they ARE looking for you, you've got the job already."  
They took volunteers to pitch themselves.  First directors, then writers.  I squirmed a bit during this part.  I wanted to be one of the ones raising my hand to volunteer, but...  Everyone else was so much younger than I was and...  Ok...  I'll volunteer, I'll volunteer.  If only because I should.  I'll just write down something real quick here...  
That's when they asked for writers to raise their hands.  They picked half a dozen in three seconds.  I didn't have my hand up.  
The last thing the moderator of the panel said was, "No one remembers what you told them.  They remember how you made them feel."  Right at that point I was feeling a bit out of sorts.  
Comic Creator Connection
This was something I did last year, the one day I attended WonderCon in 2013.  It's speed dating for artists and writers.  The artists sit at a row of tables, with their portfolios laid out.  The writers sit before them.  For five minutes they talk about what they are looking for or what they have to offer.  There are usually many more artists than writers.  
Right before it started I realized I'd forgotten my business cards.  They are sitting on the TV table by the door in my apartment.  Stupid.  That was dumb.  I took a deep breath and tried to clear that out of my head.  I also remembered what they said in the panel I'd attended previously.  Pitch yourself.  I brought up screen shots of items I had published.  As I sat before each of them, I gave them a quick run down of what I'd done.  I then told them how each of my published comic book work resulted from an artist coming to me and asking me to develop a story idea they had, but which they couldn't write.  I was a perfect five for five for getting published after such a collaboration.  I then asked them if they had a story idea that they needed help on.  
A lot of the artists there were looking to sell their services to writers with concepts of their own.  They had not interest in collaboration.  One even told me, "I know I'm going to sound like a dick, but...  I think my stories are scripted just fine.  I mean, I took English in college.  I can write." 
At least he knew he sounded like a dick.  
But there were a couple of artists there who were looking to collaborate.  One guy had a small stack of CDs with his work on it.  Not enough to give to everyone.  He gave me one.  Another guy handed me his contact info even though we didn't talk together during the connection.  
After the panel and friend of mine going to the convention and I went to eat pizza together.  A pair of Japanese girls sat at the table next to us.  As we got up to leave, one of them waved toward us.  
I looked around to see if there was someone else's attention she was trying to get.  I looked back and pointed at myself.  She nodded and pointed at me.  "Samurai!"  
Right!  My t-shirt.  I'd forgotten about it.  I came up to them and said hello in Japanese.  They were from Osaka. They'd gone to Disneyland that day.  They'd enjoyed themselves.  
"What is that gathering for?" the girl that had waved to me asked.  
"Where all those cos-players are at?"
Oh, yeah.  That's a comic book convention, I told them.  WonderCon.  I'm going there, too.  
I said good-bye after that and wished them well.  I left the restaurant, feeling pretty accomplished, the way I usually do after having a conversation in Japanese that went smoothly.  
Accomplished.  Yeah.  That's it.  That's what I want to feel.  That is what brought me to WonderCon.  A desire to feel more accomplished in my writing.  
Now that I've figured that out, guess I need to do something about it. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Solving Life Equations by Factoring Dreams

One of my favorite songs is “Southern Cross,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  There is one line in the song that has always given me a little bit of a pause, but which I’ve been remembering this weekend.  
So I’m sailing for tomorrow, my dreams are a dyin’...
It is feeling that way in my life.  I am sailing into the sunset while my dreams are dying around and inside me.  
I can trace getting to this point to a Japanese news documentary I watched earlier in the week about the causes and treatment for Alzheimer’s.  
I’ve worried about getting Alzheimer’s for most of my adult life.  Ever since, right after graduating from college and going to North Carolina to live with my family, I saw my grandmother in the full throes of the condition.  It was one of the most staggering moments in my life, seeing my grandmother turned into the practical equivalent of a zombie.  I knew the fact that she had contracted it meant that there was some chance, governed by the laws of heredity, that I might get it, too.  This worry has become a more constant companion as I’ve entered and pushed my way through middle age.  It’s waxed and wane in strength, usually in response to some observation or bit of news.  When I look at my dad, nearing 80, in complete command of his faculties, and remember my grandfather, who died at 94 with his mind still sharp, I am relieved.  
This documentary gave strength to my concerns.  In the Japanese study, they isolated certain conditions or trends in a person’s health that seemed to be strong indicators of whether that person would contract Alzheimer’s later in life.  This was true decades before the first symptoms.  These were...
An increase in a person’s blood sugar levels after eating, similar to that experienced by people with certain types of diabetes.  
Low amounts of beneficial sleep.  It is during sleep that the protein closely associated with Alzheimer’s, Beta Amyloid, is cleaned out of the brain.  Persistently low amounts of sleep, or poor sleeping patterns, results in higher concentrations of Beta Amyloid over time.  
Lack of Exercise.  Both physical and mental.  
Watching the show, I was ticking off these conditions in myself.  I already had the family history.  I’ve been diagnosed as “pre-diabetic” on and off for years with higher than normal blood sugar levels.  I don’t sleep very well, both in terms of not scheduling enough time for quality sleep (five or six hours a night at times), and often waking up in the middle of the night and then struggling to fall back to sleep.  And because of my long hours at work, where ten hours a day is normal and twelve or more is not uncommon, I have gone from going to the gym five to six times a week to sometimes only going a couple of days on the weekends.  
I could feel my memories dripping out of my brain, one at a time, running out my ears to pool like drool in my lap while watching the show.  
I made a decision after watching the documentary that just worrying about it was not enough.  I promised myself that I would schedule myself more sleep, no less than seven hours, every night.  And that I would insist on getting more exercise.  I would find other ways to improve my lifestyle to limit the possibility as best I could, but those were the two simplest ways to do something right away.
I didn’t know that trying to live better to save my life might jeopardize my dreams.  
It started Wednesday night this week.  I had to stay late at work.  Normally, when I do that I skip the gym and go straight home, but I remembered my promise, changed into my gym clothes and stopped there along the way home.  This made my arrival at home very late. Setting my alarm for seven hours, thirty minutes that night meant I was going to overlap the time set for my writing.  
Nothing to be done.  It would only be one day.  I’d find a way to make it up.  
I didn’t.  I didn’t write for the next three days.  Thursday night I had to stay at the office late overseeing work being done our our system’s network tree, cleaning it up and reorganizing it.  That night to put in the quality sleep time I needed, I had to skip the gym and my writing the next day.  Saturday, I had to wake up early for a doctor’s appointment.  Again, no writing done  
I began to wonder if this is how my life was going to be like.  That I’d reached an age where dreams were too inconvenient to maintain against basic health concerns, bills and work.  This opened the door to other life concerns, such as retirement.  The life equations I kept trying to solve seemed to necessitate a reconsideration of what I needed to spend time on.  Sitting before my computer and putting down words was starting to look like it lacked importance.  Multiply both sides of the equation by its reciprocal to eliminate it to have the formula balance was looking like the right answer.  
This thought process was making me depressed.  Not writing makes me depressed, but the thought that writing was slipping from Dream Status to that of Hobby Status, or even worse, “Just a Hobby” status, made it worse.  
But you know what they say, right?  If watching a Japanese TV show starts you on the road to depression, then you need to watch another to get you out of it.  They do say that, right?  
Well, if not they should.  
Today I watched a Japanese TV show I’ve watched a few times.  It’s called, “Booked for Japan.”  The show features Japanese known for their creative work, dancers, writers, designers, etc., and talks with them about the book or books that most influenced them and their choice to do what they do.  Today’s guest was Yasumichi Morita, a world famous interior designer who is known for turning business spaces, restaurants, boutiques and public spaces, into “timeless environments.”  The book that Yasumichi-san chose as the one that influenced him caught my attention.  
It’s Japanese title is 世界から猫が消えたなら, Sekai kara neko ga kieta nara, or “If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura.  

The premise of the book is that a man discovers he is about to die from a terminal disease.  While wandering the streets, the Devil appears before him and offers him a deal.  The devil will give the man one extra day of life for every important thing he decides to eliminate from the world.  The book is about the man’s decision and choices in regard to that deal.  
From the description I decided I wanted to read this book.  A check on line seems to indicate that it hasn’t been translated to English.  One of my stated goals in life is to reach a novel in Japanese.  One of those dreams that I can’t seem to find time for.  
But that is what I think the premise of the book is, though.  To want to live longer, that’s understandable.  But what makes a life worth living is not the number of days one has, but what one fills those days with.  To live healthier to enjoy those days, to earn money to assist with living longer and healthier, yeah, things worth doing.  But not if that’s all that one is doing.  
The next time I go to Little Tokyo and the Japanese bookstore that I know there, I’m going to see if they have this book.  I’m going to make it the Japanese novel I read in its entirety.  And I’m going to recalculate the equation of my life to see if there is something else that can be factored out of it to make room for the things I really, really want to do, along with those things I actually, really, really need to do to do them. 
Because living an extra day in a world without cats isn’t really living at all.