Sunday, November 30, 2014

My 10 Books (Part 1)

My friend and fellow writer, Sara L. Card, posed what she called the "10 Book Question" to me.  What 10 Books impacted me the most, in my life, my writing, whatever.  
I've already tweeted my answers but decided to write about them here with a little more explanation about my choices.  I’ll post the second half of the list next week.  
1) Tunnels in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein.  
This book is number one because it completely altered my plans for my life.  I had always been a big reader as a kid.  Prior to my thirteenth birthday, most of what I read was non-fiction.  History books, science books.  Books about soldiers and their weapons.  One of my favorite books at the time was a medical encyclopedia that my Dad saved from the paper shredder and pulping machine where he worked.  It has a section on the human anatomy with these clear plastic sheets that illustrations of the organs that would show you the interiors of them as you peeled them away one at a time.  It was because of the medical encyclopedia that I would tell my grown-up relatives that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. 
Then came this day when I was talking to a classmate of mine at Junior High School and I noticed he had this book with a very odd cover on it.  I asked him what it was about and he started telling me about spaceships and aliens and a bunch of other stuff I knew wasn't true.  
"It's science fiction," he said after noticing my perplexed look.  The school library had a whole section devoted to this "science fiction" stuff.  He gave me the name of the author of the book he was reading.  
I went to the library and found the section.  It was pretty big.  It stretched down one wall to the back of the library and then turned a corner and headed down a second wall, ending by the back door.  I found a book by the same author, Robert Heinlein, and checked it out.  
My practice at the time was to do my homework before going to bed, where I'd sit up and read for a bit before going to sleep.  I opened the book I'd checked out, Tunnels in the Sky, and started reading.  
I think it was around 4 AM when I finished it.  I put it down, turned out my light and lay in bed imagining that I had been on that planet with all those other kids, kids more or less my own age!  The next day, when I went to school, I returned Tunnels and headed back to A's in the science fiction section.  Nightfall and Other Stories by Issac Asimov was my next book.  By the end of the school year I worked my way through Bradbury, Clarke and the rest to reach Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley.  They wouldn't let me check it out, though, because there was less than a week to the school year by then, and they didn't lend books at that point.  
The next time a relative asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn't have much of an answer for them.  What occupation allowed you to go to other planets and meet aliens?
2) Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.
A shorter entry for this one, which I read during the summer after the school year in which I read Tunnels in the Sky.  It was actually a gift from a cousin of mine for Christmas the year before.  I had looked at the title of the first book, wondered what a "hobbit" was and set it aside.  
I dug it out to take with me on a summer trip to a mountain cabin with some other cousins of mine.  I still didn't know what a hobbit was, but science fiction reading had made me more willing to find out.  I enjoyed The Hobbit.  I thought it was a good story.  I figured I'd give the other three books a try.  
To get the point, the Lord of the Rings finished what Tunnels in the Sky started.  It made worlds of imagination seem more real to me than the real world I lived in.  It made me want to learn languages that other creatures spoke and to go on some great adventure where I would fight orcs.  
It was shortly after reading these books that my relatives stopped asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  
3) Shogun by James Clavell.
This impact of this book, read when I was 14 years old, grew slowly and steadily over time.  It was the book that put historical novels on my reading list.  More importantly, it was the book that made me realize that there were people and cultures in the world that did not think the way I did.  To verify that the culture and history of the Japanese people were portrayed accurately, I began to study their history and culture.  Watching Japanese movies, especially samurai movies, and more especially those directed by Akira Kurosawa, followed.  Manga and anime came next.  Finally, in 2006, I began studying the language.  
By now, my relatives might still not know what I want to do when I grow up.  At least they know that I'd like to do it in Japan.  
4) The Complete Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle.
A gift from my dad one Christmas.  It was the collection of the stories that had first appeared in The Strand magazine.  This book made me want to read people the same way I read books.  And I still remember the first line the great detective spoke when he first meets John Watson: "You look like you recently returned fro Afghanistan."  
If you want to see a beautiful, and ironic, rewriting of that line watch the opening episode of "Sherlock."  
5) Voyage Through the Universe - Life Search from Time-Life Books.
Time-Life books used to put out some of the most gorgeously illustrated encyclopedias ever produced.  There were often focused on a single general topic.  Voyage Through the Universe was a series about astronomy and space exploration.  It was my favorite collection from Time-Life, which I've managed to keep on my shelf all these years.  
Life Search was the book that focused on the possibility of life on other worlds and the conditions necessary to sustain life.  As part of that examination it had one of the clearest explanation of evolution that I've ever encountered.  
I remember the day when I read the section describing the theory on how the first strands of DNA were formed in clay crystals in the early days of the planet's existence.  When I got up from the sofa and closed the book, I remember feeling light-headed.  I looked around the living room as if expecting the walls to fall away and reveal that all I had believe up until that moment was only a play staged for my imagination.  A feeling like, “I guess that explains it,” went through me, one that was scary and profound.  
I’ve not gotten over that feeling since.  
Next week, the other five.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Defining a New Opposite

A quick Japanese lesson to start this blog entry.  
The Japanese word for "victim," is 被害者, which is pronounced, "he-guy-sha," with a bit of lengthening of the "guy" part.  Something like, "guy-ee."  
The first character, 被 - "he," means "Target."  The second character, 害 - "guy," means "Harm, injury or evil influence."  The last character, 者 - "sha," means "Person of that nature," or "Person that does that work."  
Put it all together and the direct translation is "Person who is the target of evil influences."  
That pretty much describes how I've felt this week.  
It was a mixed back of stuff.  At work, it was the jobs that we took on that became more complicated and more difficult, with tighter and tighter turn-arounds the clients were insisting on with each passing day.  It was also the series of silly mistakes that popping up left and right adding to the difficulty.  
At home it was my continuing battle with supernaturally inspired insomnia, as well as having my bathroom sink become a water fountain when the faucet handle suddenly popped off right after I woke up in the morning.  
My family hasn't had it too good, either.  One sister, who is in the midst of chemo-therapy, her second go-round with a cancer that returned after surgery and radiation therapy, got pneumonia this week.  My other sister came home to find her husband dead in bed.  
All this stuff was making me succumb to whatever evil influence was directing its attention at me.  Talking a walk after getting home one night, reading messages from my family about what was happening with my sisters, I looked up to see a bicycle bearing straight toward me.  There was a moment of dancing back and forth we tried to move out of each other's way until I finally jumped to the curve and he swerved back toward the inside of the sidewalk.  
"Why don't you just move to the right next time!"  
Huh?  You think this was my fault?  Why don't you drive your bicycle in the street where you belong, you sonovabitch, or next time I'll grab that loose brick there, bash you over the head and push you into the street to get run over by the next car to drive by!
I didn't say that.  But I thought it.  And I imagined doing it, as well as other more colorful variations, for the next two or three blocks.  
The walk didn't help me relax the way I intended it.  
So, by Friday, I was waiting for the week to end.  I just wanted to get through the day.  I just wanted to get out of there in one piece.  I was going to have pizza.  That's my comfort food.  That's my reward food.  That's what I eat to congratulate myself for getting through life's adventures.  An adventure, they say, is something that ought to kill you but doesn't.  That's how I was using the word a moment ago.  
It was with this mindset that I received an email telling me one of those jobs going through our production pipeline was finally, FINALLY finished.  Thank, God!  All I had to do was burn it to a disk and put it on an FTP site for our client, who has been wanting to see it done for the last two weeks.  I sent the client an email.  Got back his very grateful reply.  I got the CD burning ready to go.  Then I made the fateful decision of opening the load file we'd created for the client's document management program. 
It was the wrong size.  It was over a hundred pages short.  It was wrong.  
I called the supervisor that had overseen the first part of the project into my office.  I pointed to my screen.  How could this have happened?  What did we do?  I answered my own question as I opened the raw file and compared it to the finished project.  We somehow skipped one of the files.  The first appeal file for the case in question.  The second appeal file was there, marked as "Second Appeal."  Wouldn't it seem obvious that if there was a "second" appeal a "first" appeal was lurking around there somewhere?  Huh?  
It was at this point that I noticed how my supervisor was taking it.  His head was down.  He wasn't looking at me.  He wasn't looking at the screen either.  He'd glance at the open files, flinch, and then look down.  "Sorry," he said.  "I don't know how it happened."  He said both several times.  
It was then I realized it was my fault, too.  I had taken over the second part of the project.  To make sure it was "done right."  I had the files he had split from the raw file.  I could have, should have, would have if I had thought ahead, checked them to make sure the page counts matched.  Earlier that week, I had told my staff that I wanted everyone to check what went past their desks.  "Everyone should check a little, so no one has to check a lot."  I had failed to follow my own instructions.  
This didn't make me feel any better, but it did make me see that, right now, I was making my supervisor a target of evil influence.  
I let him go back to his job.  I got on the phone and told the client what happened.  I apologized for my department's error...  For my error.  I worked out with the client that I would send him what we'd finished right away and I would have the rest done by Monday then send it to him then.  I went out into the department after that, told everyone to leave me alone, locked the door to my office and worked on fixing the job to keep that promise.  I played with the idea of coming in on Saturday to do it, but rejected it.  I would fix it now.  
I finished my part.  Before I left the office I got an email from the team completing the job telling me that I had sent it to them in time to ensure it would be done by Monday.  Ok.  Fine.  Thanks.  
When I look up "victim" in the thesaurus, the only antonyms they offer are words like "criminal" or "culprit."  Even the Japanese thesaurus I consulted online gives me 加害者, pronounced "ka-guy-sha," as the antonym.  It means "assailant," or literally, "the person who increases the evil influence."  
This seems to indicate that our choice is to either allow evil influences to impact us, or to turn around and exert our evil influence on those around us.  "Do unto others before they do unto you."  This seems limiting.  Should the opposite of being targeted by an evil influence be something more like the emitter of a good influence?
To this end, I've created a new Japanese word: 加利者.  It's pronounced, "ka-ree-sha," and means, "Person who increased good influences."  There.  This is my gift to the Japanese people.  
Now to figure out how to say that in my own language. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Baby-Sitter from Beyond the Grave (Or Not)

I posted in a previous blog how I was having trouble sleeping because of the sensation that there was someone or something in my bedroom with me.  I told the story of the poltergeist experience I had throughout my teen years to give credence to the sensation.  
This week, it seems I got over it, though in a rather odd manner.  It could be that my dead great-aunt is baby-sitting me at night.  
It was actually a dream I had in the middle of the week.  My sleep pattern has been very...  Uncomfortable, I'd call it.  Because of the sensation of something being there, I'd lay in bed, wide away, feeling nervous and twitchy.  I kept opening my eyes to look around and see if there was anything in the shadows.  
The next thing I'd know was, BAM! the alarm was going off, waking me up.  From my perspective I'd be laying there, jittery and nervous, and the next moment I'm waking up.  There was no period of cozy, drifting slow to sleep pleasure.  After these last couple of weeks, I'm pretty certain that the cozy, pre-sleep relaxation is a heretofore unrecognized benefit of a normal sleep cycle.  
I also didn't have any dreams.  Normally, when I wake up suddenly, I can remember something of what I was dreaming about right before.  These days, zip.  The only thing I remembered was, seemingly moments before, me laying in semi-darkness, trying to convince myself that nothing else sentient was in the room but me.  
This one night, things were different.  I still had that certainty that I wasn't alone.  I kept wondering if the twitching I was feeling was my tense muscle struggling to relax or if the bed was starting to move.  
Then...  I was asleep.  I was dreaming and I knew I was dreaming, which doesn't happen very often to me.  I was standing on the street in the middle of the night in front of my apartment.  And someone was with me...
"I can't stay very much, hon...  But I'll sit with you for the night."  
I knew that voice.  It was my great-aunt, Isolene.  My pop's sister.  When I moved back to California, I used to run errands for her all the time, taking her to get her Social Security and SSI checks cashed, taking her grocery shopping, to the doctor's when she didn't want to walk or take the bus, which was pretty much every time she needed to go.  She died a few years after Pops died due to complications from her diabetes.  She was so disciplined when it came to her insulin, that I often suspected she neglected her routine because she didn't want to be alone in the world without her brother.  She got furious at me when I suggested that to her while visiting her in the hospital shortly before she died.
"Ok.  Good."  I remembered my mom telling me that Isolene used to baby-sit with me right after I was born, while the three of us were still living with Pop and Mumma in their house.  
"But I can't stay much, hon.  You're a grown man now, too.  And anyways..."  
We were at the corner of the street where my apartment building stands.  I tried to look at her, but...  She wasn't really there.  In my dream, all I could see was this...  Shape.  A big and fuzzy cloud.  Dark.  With a blurry impression of a face and hands, with everything else seeping in and out, back and forth into the night time darkness that surrounded us.  
Was this really my great-aunt?  I started feeling concerned...
"...I have to make sure I get paid for this."  
Whew!  That was a relief.  One thing both Isolene and Pop shared was a concern about where their money came and went from.  And it was her voice.  So...
The next thing I knew was drifting back to consciousness.  You know that feeling when you start become aware of how comfy you're feeling.  When you start moving and know you're moving.  My eyes opened and I saw the bright red figures of my alarm clock.  My alarm was going to ring in about three minutes.  
And I was well rested.  The first good night sleep in days.
That night, when I got home from work, tired from the day, there was no anxiety.  I got into bed and pulled the covers up.  I didn't feel any need to look around.  I felt comfy.
I know there are people who might read this and say, "Of course that was your great-aunt.  She felt you were in trouble and came to protect you."  
But how can you be sure of that?  Couldn't it also be that some demon invaded my dreams and is trying to lull me into a false sense of security before...  Doing something...  Demony?
I don't think I'm going to consider the possibilities too much.  The skeptic in me thinks that my brain just did what it needed to do in order to get some much needed rest.  It went through the database of recollections and pulled together something that would help me relax enough to get some sleep.  
And if it is my great-aunt Isolene reaching out to help me from beyond...?  Then, I'll just remind her of all the times I carried her groceries from my car and stocked the shelves of her kitchen with what she bought and tell her a little beyond the grave baby-sitting makes us even.
She would appreciate that. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Embracing Memories of the Erroneous

I went to my new favorite Japanese restaurant and almost decided to never go again.  Not because of bad food or bad service.  Far from it.  I've gone to this place, called Takuya, in the Arcade Lane Plaza between Colorado and Green Street, three Fridays in a row now.  Everything I've had on the menu has been quite good.  
No...  The reason why I was wondering to myself if I'd ever be back to eat there again as I left was because I made a mistake.  
It happened like this.  It was toward the end of my meal.  I'd ordered items from the sushi menu for the first time and was pretty full.  The California Roll can almost be described as luscious in taste.  Not traditional sushi, I know, but delicious.  
One of the reasons I like going to Takuya is that it gives me a chance to practice my Japanese.  All the staff speaks it fluently.  And most of the customers are Japanese as well.  Last night, with the exception of another couple by the door, all the other customers were Japanese couples and families.  A good sign for Japanese restaurant.  
A quick side note: When it comes to Japanese restaurants, one way to tell if the food will be authentic is the decor.  If it is "Japanese inspired" food, then you'll have a bunch of Japanese stuff on the walls.  Kanji scrolls, pictures of Mount Fuji, things like that.  Japanese restaurants run by Japanese people tend to be clean, simple and neat.  There are exceptions of course, but this is what I've seen.  
Anyway...  I was done with the meal and was ready to check out.  Just as I was about to look up to catch the waitress's eye, she came up from behind and asked me if I wanted to order anything more.  
"Kyuukei, onegaishimasu."  Check, please.  
She nodded and walked toward the restaurant's entrance.  When she came back, she placed a menu on the table next to my empty plate.  She smiled, nodded, pointed to the menu and said, "Call me when you are ready."  
I stared at her.  She stared back at me.  I scrunched up my brows.  Her smile faltered.  She leaned in closer and spoke in a subdued voice using English.
"You wanted list?"  
List?  A list of menu items?  She wasn't the waitress that took my original order so...  Maybe she wanted me to list what I had ordered?  
"List.  Nan desu da ke?"  That second part is Japanese for, "what was it again?"  "Re-su-to?  Bu-re-ku?" 
Re-su-to?  Bu-re-ku?  I ran her pronunciation through my brain's "Japanglish" dictionary.  
"Hai, Hai."  She smiled again, apparently pleased that I seemed to be getting it.  "A rest now.  Order more later?"  
It turned out that I had used the wrong word.  "Kyuukei" is the Japanese word for break or respite, as in "I'm taking a quick break."  The word I had intended to use was "Kaikei," for bill or account.  The "kei" sounds at the end of both words had gotten mixed up in my English saturated brain and the wrong one had popped out.  I didn't even recognize my mix-up until the waitress helped me figure it out.  
I paid the bill quickly and left right away.  I was feeling a bit foolish.  A little embarrassed over my mistake.  It was then that the thought of not going back flashed through my mind.  
If you're thinking this is a really stupid reason for never going back to a favored place to eat, you're quite right.  I tossed the idea aside, though the entire walk home I kept thinking, “Kaikei is bill, Kyuukei is break...  Kaikei is bill, Kyuukei is break...”  
It is, however, a reflection of how much I abhor making mistakes.  Drawing upon my Catholic rearing, mistakes are up there right after Mortal and Venial sins.  
This is overstating how I feel about it, but only to a degree.  
The irony is that I often tell stories about the mistakes I've made in my life.  And I've made a bunch of them.  
In my effort to learn Japanese, I made some doozies in the beginning.  I used to have a colleague named Toru who was born in Okinawa.  I inflicted him with my efforts to learn to speak Japanese while we worked together.  
I remember one day, while heading out of the office, I got the idea of telling him "Have a nice day!"  I looked up the words I thought I needed in the dictionary and headed for the back exit which would take me past his work station.  As I reached the door I turned to him and said...
"Toru-san, ii hi wo motte kudasai."  
In response, Toru nodded, reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter and flicked it on for me.  
Oh-kay...  Not the response I was seeking.  
Anyone who has studied Japanese for a significant amount of time will recognize tons of mistakes in that simple sentence, including the incorrect assumption that the Japanese used a phrase that meant something like "Have a nice day."  Just like saying "Bless you," when someone sneezes, saying "Have a nice day" is an American thing.  
I've made similar mistakes.  Another day, heading to the break room I said to Toru something that I thought meant, "I'm going to lunch and coming right back."  
His head sprang up from his computer screen and he looked at me with confusion smeared across his face.  "Did you just say you're going to eat a frog?"  
No.  Frog is not on the menu today.  
But I kept plugging away at it.  Reading my books.  Listening to the Japanese podcasts I downloaded.  Eventually taking classes.  I figured out what I had done wrong during those earlier attempts and did what I needed to do to prevent them from happening again.  
Toru gave me compliment for my efforts.  Or, it was something I'm sure he intended as a compliment.  I think.
"Listening to you," he said in English to me in the office parking lot after we'd had a short conversation in Japanese one day.  "I know now why Americans learn Japanese faster than Japanese learn English."  
"Oh?"  I puffed up a bit, feeling an infusion of pride over my efforts.  "Why is that?"  
"You not afraid of looking like a fool."  
Well...  Thanks for saying that.  Yeah...
I agree with what is at the heart of his statement, though.  You can't be afraid of failing when you're going after something.    
A recent example from another favorite subject of mine, baseball.  The season ended this week with a certain team from north of Los Angeles winning the World Series.  During the last inning of the game, Brandon Crawford for the Royals was running from second base.  He was getting ready to round third and head for home to score the tying run when the third base couch signaled for him hold up.  With the tying run 90 feet from home plate, the next batter popped up to Pablo Sandoval, the third baseman for that "Other Team" to end the game and the Royal's chances for a comeback.  
There's been a lot of press asking if the third base coach made the right call.  With all due respect to that couch, I'm going to say that I think he made a mistake.  
The adage in baseball is that you should always force the other team to make a play.  There have been a lot of calculations showing that the decision to have the runner come home was a close one.  The best estimates I've seen indicate that there was probably a difference of three-tenths of a second between the time it would have taken Crawford to come home and the time it would have taken the outfielder to grab the ball, exchange it to his throwing hand, throw the ball, the catcher to catch and then for the catcher to make the tag, with the advantage of time going to the defense.  
Three-tenths of a second is not a lot of time.  But in a situation like that, it can be forever.  And there is no telling what could happen in that sequence of actions the defense would have to do in order to secure the out.  
The game could have very well ended on that play with the Gia--  Uh...  That Other Team winning the series anyway.  But it would have been a dramatic moment that baseball fans would have remembered forever as the first time a World Series ended with someone getting thrown out at the plate.  
So...  I guess what I am saying is this...  I will always hate making mistakes.  But since I'm going to make them anyway, what I really ought to do is make them as big and as memorable as possible.  Doing that will help ensure they stay with me forever and keep them from being repeated. 
I'll put that into practice when I go to Takuya next Friday.  And I'll place my order without ordering frog, or if they can give me "good fire" and I won't take a break while eating either.  
"Kaikei, onegaishimasu!"  Practicing already.