Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Eulogy for 2014

I've been a bad mood this holiday season.  This is not unusual.  There's something about Christmas and New Year's that brings out the Scrooge in me.  The only difference this year is that I didn't try to fight it.  
For example, when It's A Wonderful Life came on the TV this year, and the scene when Jimmy Stewart's character, thinking he'll soon be arrested and go to jail for bank fraud, asks his wife, "What did we have so many children for?"  I said back to the television, "Because you forgot to wear a condom all those times, dummy!"  
That's how I've been feeling this year.  
But the year is almost done.  Today's the last day.  I've been writing in my journal about my thoughts and feelings.  I started cataloguing the disappointments of the year.  The things still undone.  The achievements not achieved.  As you might expect, this didn't help my mood. 
But then, I thought to myself how 2014 was dying.  Like a terminal patient, it was gasping its last.  By the end of the day it would expire.  This train of thought, which came from the dark tunnel my mood has been taking me this year, gave me the idea that, when someone dies and it's time to have a funeral, one ought to eulogize it.  
And a eulogy is filled with good things.  Sometimes they are lies we wish were true, but good things that at least can be pointed to in a person's life.  
So, this, my last blog entry for 2014, is a eulogy to the year that was.  
2014 brought me my second short-story sale.  A very good sale, to Analog magazine.  A sale which makes me eligible for membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a full member.  This was how I wanted to become eligible to the organization.  No associate membership step for me.
Thank you, 2014.  I appreciate that.  
And the money I got from that sale went to pay for my trip to England and Wales this summer.  Three weeks.  The longest vacation I've had as a working adult.  I got to see Big Ben for real.  I got to sit in the same pub, in the same room, maybe even at the same table, where J.R.R. Tolkien first read The Hobbit to his friend C.S. Lewis.  I got to see the door that inspired Lewis Carroll to write about a rabbit that was late.  I stood in ruins that were old when my country was born.  I got to down into a mine with the men who used to dig coal there.  And i got to drink hard apple cider from the tap at every pub  I visited.  
That was good of you, 2014.  Thanks for all that stuff.
And the United Kingdom is now the fifth foreign country I've visited.  The first on the opposite side of the Atlantic.  When I was a kid I used to think visiting foreign countries was something wealthy, super-cultured, special people did.  I never thought I'd cross a border to some place else (Mexico and Canada not really counting because, well...  They're Mexico and Canada, right?).  Much less the ocean.  
More importantly, I expect to do it again.  Maybe Finland in a couple of years, with a tour of the Baltic countries.  Certainly Japan again, as soon as I can make that happen.  Three more times at least.  New Zealand.  Australia again.  Who knows.  It is the EXPECTATION that I will see more of the world that 2014 brought me.  England was a demarcation line.  I'm a world traveller now.  
And speaking of foreign things, I started reading a book in another language in 2014.  And, more recently, I posted a notice on a message board in a foreign language, reading the terms of agreement, responding to the replies I got from it, all without using the language I was raised in. 
Pretty cool.  
I bought a new car.  I'm not so happy about the car in and of itself, but I'm very happy that I budgeted myself so I could afford the payments for the new car.  It fits snugly in my budget, but it does fit.  
I got to see my family at Thanksgiving.  All but my brother, who lives overseas.  There will come a year when I won't be able to say that, but 2014 wasn't that year.  That was good.  
I came the conclusion that I'm secure at work.  That is a tenuous thing.  My nature is to assume that I'm on the verge of losing my job and end up on the street, sleeping behind dumpsters.  But this year brought me signs that this is not that big of a worry.  Or, that there are other, bigger worries to contend with.  
Hey, I'm trying my best to be positive, OK?  Cut me some slack.  
The most uplifting moment for me this holiday season was writing in my journal my goals and expectations for next year.  That will be the subject for another blog, but the basis of those expectations were either planted or kept alive in 2014.  Some of them are recycled from previous years (I still want to increase my rate of publication.  I still want to get my novel published, things like that).  But the fact that these goals are still alive in kicking means that 2014 helped me keep them alive.  The year gave me enough encouragement, enough support, to keep these things on my list of things to do, things to strive for, things to achieve.  
So, here's to you, 2014.  In your final hours.  Seeing your replacement, 2015, literally coming over the horizon.  For these things and others, I want to thank you.  You were the best of years.  But you did good.  I will do my best to remember you fondly as your siblings come at me, with their own collection of stuff, good and bad, one after the other.  
May you Rest in Peace.  
Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Feral Parrots Part 2

Here is the second installment of the rough draft of the story I’m calling “Feral Parrots.” 
Akiko knocked on the front door to Neighbor-Derek's apartment.  She looked left and right along the walkway before the apartment.  She hoped no one else would come out and see her.  It took a necessity to bring her outside.  Food from the supermarket.  Taking Daniel to the doctor before his passing.  Moving to the smaller apartment once he had passed.  Things of that nature.  With Daniel gone now, Akiko realized that her reasons for going out into the world had decreased dramatically.  If she wasn't careful, she'd become a "hikikomori," like those young people that stayed inside and shunned society, never speaking to or seeing anyone.  
It was while adding the prospect of becoming a shut-in to her list of possible futures that she heard someone inside fumbling with the locks to the door.  She heard a bolt twist.  Then the rattling of a chain falling against the door.  The the knob twisted back and forth as the person inside worked the lock there.  Akiko wondered if this Neighbor-Derek person was something of a hikikomori himself.  
The door opened.  The parrots, which had been quiet for the remainder of the morning, suddenly started squawking again.  
"Ah...  Herou..."  Out of habit, she bowed her head toward him.  Her first impression was that he was older than she expected.  Closer to her age, even older perhaps.  Much older than her daughter.  A fearful thought of what a man this old, unmarried, was doing having conversations with her nearly teenage daughter was catalogued with the other fears she maintained about living in America.  
"Hello..."  The man peered at her through the narrow crack of his door.  Behind him she could see nothing but darkness.  He must have all the shades pulled tightly over the windows to keep the apartment this dark during the day.  If that was the case, why did he need to leave his front and back porch lights on all night?  
"Ekusecuse me...  I am called Akiko Tomurinsen..."  Akiko bowed her head again.  She found off the impulse to apologize for her poor English, still so bad despite living in America and being married to an American for so many years.  Mari's admonishment sounded in the back of her mind.  She shushed it as she would if her daughter had said it out loud.  "In the apartomento ober dere..."  She pointed to the opposite side of the building, where his back door faced.  "Is where I am living..."  
The man shut his eyes tight for a moment.  Akiko braced herself, expecting a rough, American outburst directed toward her.  He opened them after a moment, blinked, then focused on her again.  
"Ah, sou...  Mari-kun no okaasan, desu ne?"  
"Eh?  Hai.  Sou da."  
Akiko was so startled by the man's use of Japanese that she completely lost her manner and answered in in a very informal way, as if they had been long time friends or family members.  
"I'm very glad to finally meet you.  Mari is a smart girl."  He opened the door wider.  Yes.  He was definitely her husband's height, though much more slender.  His hair was cut very, very short.  What her daughter called a "buzz cut."  His eyes were the brightest, clearest green she could ever remember seeing.  They seemed to flash the way a cat's eyes did when you shone a light into them at night.  There was a tired look to his face, as one who had to stay up late and work all night might look.  "I am called Derek Merton.  Yoroshiku Onegainshimasu."  
He bowed after giving her a very proper and polite Japanese greeting.  She found herself bowing in an automatic reaction.  When Akiko straightened back up she realized, almost as an aside, that he was what she would consider to be a very handsome man.  
"Yoroshiku Onegaiitashimasu."  Akiko found herself at a loss.  She was struggling to remember what it was that brought her here.  She fell upon another old habit from when she meet Daniel and his English-speaking friends back in Japan; the compliment.  "You speak Japanese very well."  
"Ah, no."  He waved his hand back and forth between them.  A very Japanese gesture.  "No, not yet.  My speaking skills are like a lazy school boy, and my reading skills are even worse.  I understand almost nothing."  
It sounded like a practiced response.  Something he'd learned to say to make his Japanese acquaintances smile and insist that he was, in fact, quite good.  His pronunciation was like a native!  And even if a practiced response, to hear an American respond with such modesty was...  It was...  
The parrots increased their cries.  They started flapping between the trees rising from the court below to the eaves over their heads.  Akiko started ducking at the sound of them striking the roof above as they landed.  She could hear their claws scratching the roof's tiles.  Their voices pushed their way into her ears and drowned out all other thoughts.  
"I know, I know!"  Neighbor-Derek looked up as he raised his voice in English.  "She's standing right in front of me.  Settle down."  
In a heartbeat, the squawking stopped.  One of the birds, directly above them, kept calling and calling unabated.  Then two others shrieked at him in short, angry bursts.  It was almost as though one said, "Pay..." and the other, "Attention!"  
Neighbor-Derek was watching her.  Waiting for her.  A pleasant, patient smile on his lips.  His eyes kept flashing, though.  Not quite like cat eyes, no...  More like...  Something else.
"I, uh..." Something made her want to speak in English.  To show respect for his effort to learn her language.  Not for her, she knew, but...  Doing so would stretch the conversation out forever.  "I am so sorry to disturb you, but..."  
"Something is wrong."  He lowered his head, his expression grave.  He stared even deeper into her eyes.  "If there is something I can do for you..."  
"Well, it's a little something...  You see...  Your bedroom...  I mean!  The light over your backdoor, it faces MY bedroom, you see..."  
Her phone started ringing.  
"Sumimasen."  She bowed in apology as she pulled the phone out of her pants pocket.  She looked at the screen.  All the relief from a moment ago left her.  It was Mrs. Tomlinson.  
"Sumimasen.  Chotto dake."  She raised a finger to Neighbor-Derek then turned away, walking to the railing behind her.  She covered the phone with her free hand as she thumbed the red button to enable the call.  
"Akiko?"  Daniels mother always elongated the opening of her name.  "Ah-kiko."  It almost sounded like she was saying, "Oh, something old and strange," when she used her name.  "You were supposed to call me this morning, remember?"  
"But you didn't call."  
"Yes."  Akiko bowed her head, then chastised herself for a gesture Mrs. Tomlinson couldn't see.  
"We need to get this straightened out as soon as possible.  We have to think of what's best for Mari..."  
One of the parrots, the one that had fallen quiet last, began squawking.  A metallic, "Craw-Craw-Craw," in time with Mrs. Tomlinson's words.  It made it hard to hear her.  
"You see the advantages, don't you?  You can't support her and yourself on what you're getting from Social Security."  
"Yes."  Not with you withholding the monthly payments from Daniel's trust fund.  She had told Daniel, asked him, pleaded with him to change the fund to put her in charge.  Daniel had promised that he would.  Had even shown her the paper work he'd filled out.  But death came before he could file it.  
"I've already had my attorney draw-up a craw-craw-craw..."  
"Eh?  Nani?"  She put her free hand over her ear to cut off the parrot cries.  Others were joining in now.  
"What?  Akiko, you know I don't speak craw-craw...  I said my CRAW-CRAW has drawn up CRAW-CRAW-CRAW..."  
"I..."  Akiko shook her head.  The woman had never accepted her as family.  Had never tried to understand her.  But then, she had never spoken up to her.  She had worked through Daniel.  Gotten him to speak up when needed.  And now Daniel was gone and she didn't know how to make herself understood.  
"Don't You Want to Keep Her?"  
"Eh?  Mochiron!"  Of course!  Mari was her precious daughter.  She had been a part of her, inside her.  Daniel had been lazy, indulgent, but had been kind and thoughtful and loved her and Mari.  Mari had all of that part of him.  "Mari-chan to isshou ni sumitai, yo.  Naze..."  
Why was Mrs. Tomlinson asking her that?  Why was she trying to speak to her in Japanese?  She didn't understand Japanese.  
"Yes!  Yes!  Yes, yes, yes!"  It was the only English word that came out easily.  Yes, she wanted to keep Mari.  Yes, she would if she had the means.  Yes, she knew that Mrs. Tomlinson was using the money and position she had to take the most precious thing she had in her life and send her back to Japan.  Alone.  With no one...
"Yes, what?  Akiko, what--?"  
Eh?  She could hear Mrs. Tomlinson going on now.  Saying more of the same things she'd been saying, since right after Daniel's funeral.  It would be better if Mari lived with her.  Went to the best schools.  Had the best things.  Then who...?  
Akiko looked up.  All the parrots in the trees were staring at her.  Screaming at her.  The ones on the roof were bent over, looking at her upside down, squawking and screaming at her.  Their voices were ringing in her ears.  
Akiko looked to her right.  Neighbor-Derek was there.  He was looking at the parrots.  She had said the same thing to them this morning.  "You're noisy.  Be quiet."  
This time the parrots fell silent.  The pranced back and forth on the branches they were standing on.  They looked...  Embarrassed.  Naughty boys caught in their naughtiness.  
Mrs. Tomlinson.  Her voice, tinny over the phone's speaker.  Akiko brought the phone back to her ear.
She heard an exasperated huff.  "It is clear to me that you're going to be selfish and won't think about Mari's future.  I'll just have to proceed with what I think is best for my granddaughter.  Call me if you come to your senses."  The line beeped.  The call ended.  
"Hello?  Hello?  Moshi-moshi...?"  No.  No, no, no...  She hadn't wanted to make her mad.  She had thought, hoped, that if she could take some time, without getting her mad...  But...  
"Nanika tetsudaimashou ka?"  
She stared at Neighbor-Derek.  Was there something he could help with?  Help with?  She wanted to scream at him.  Can you bring my husband back?  Can you get me money to keep my daughter?  What can you do?  
His eyes.  Green flashing eyes.  Not cat eyes.  No.  They were green like a parrot's eyes.  
With a strangled sound in her throat, Akiko turned and ran from him and the parrots.  She kept running until she was safely back in her apartment, the door locked securely behind her.  
That’s it for now.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Feral Parrots Part 1

Last week, I posted a tweet about the flock of feral parrots that live around my apartment in Pasadena, CA, being much more raucous than normal.  A writer-friend of mine, Ann Dulhanty commented on that post with a link to a story she had posted on her blog last March that seems to have been inspired by the crows in her neighborhood in Northeastern Canada exhibiting similar behavior (sorry, Ann, can't remember where you live.  You gotta remember that Canada is just a thin strip above the U.S. on most American's mental maps).  
You can read Ann's posting here: Country Life part 1.  
I like the start of Ann's story.  It made me wonder why the parrots in my neck of the woods (or around the nearest street corner for a more urban take on that saying) were acting up the way they were.  I promised myself and Ann that I would see what I could come up with in that regard.  
Well, I'm going to start to fulfill that promise with this posting.  It's just the opening.  I'm going to do my best to finish it and post the rest sometime soon.  All I have is the working title, which is based on the most obvious element of the story.  
Hope you like it and look forward to more.
Feral Parrots.
Akiko Tomlinson hated the feral parrots that lived around her one bedroom apartment.  
She could barely hear her own whispered epithet as they squawked and swooped and flapped and dove and circled about.  They were loud and annoying to begin with.  Their cries were like a rusty hinge on a metal gate being twisted back and forth by naughty boys.  Today they were worse.  Something had agitated them into a cacophony of screeching voices and flapping wings.  
“They’re not going to hear you if you just whisper like that.”  
Her daughter, Mari, was beside her by the railing of their second story walkway.  Akiko had not heard her open the screen door and join her over the noisy birds.  
“Huh.”  Akiko nodded.  Her daughter had a point.  Like her, the parrots had been brought to Pasadena, California from other parts of the world and then let loose by circumstances.  Unlike Akiko, they were fully Americanized.  Loud, pushy and impolite.  She felt like saying this, but didn’t want to see her pre-teen daughter roll her eyes at her.  A habit she had recently picked up.  
“Grandmama was on the phone.”  
Akiko tightened her grip upon the railing.  
“She said to ask you if you’ve made up your mind.”  
Akiko tightened her jaw.  She had asked Daniel’s mother to keep the matter between the two of them.  As she had in the past, Mrs. Tomlinson had found a way to break a promise without really breaking it.  
“Is something up?”  
“Tabun...  Aru neko ga omu no akachan wo tabeta.”  
“I was asking about you and grandmama.”  Mari leaned forward over the railing and looked around nonetheless.  “I don’t think they’re angry at any cats taking a chick, though.  It seems to be something over...  That way...  Oh.”  
“Nani?”  Akiko leaned over the railing herself.  She spotted what her daughter had noticed.  There was a man standing there.  Next to the fence that circled the yard of the private elementary school on the street.  About the same height as her recently departed husband.  Not as fat, though.  He was wearing a dark windbreaker against the early morning chill of a December morning.  A blue floppy hat sat on his head.  He was just standing there, not moving, as the parrots swirled around him like an angry green tornado.  
“Ano hito...”  The man was not unfamiliar to Akiko, but...  “Dare?”  
“That’s Derek.”  
Akiko turned to her daughter.  “Dereku?”
“Yeah.  Derek...  Something.  I forgot his last name.  He moved into the apartment across the way.  Behind us.”  
Yes, yes.  The one that kept his backdoor light on at night since moving in, lighting up the bedroom where Akiko slept.  She gave him another look.  
“Yoku shitteru no?”  
“Not really.  I’ve talked to him a couple of times in the laundry room, that’s all.  He seems like a nice guy.  Listens good.”  
Akiko gave her daughter a look.  “Nihongo de kotaeraru no?”
Mari rolled her eyes.  “Why don’t you ask me in English?  We live in America, right?”  
Akiko pursed her lips.  She did not answer her daughter‘s challenge.  Mari had stopped answering in Japanese since her father died.  A way of staying close to him, Akiko thought.  
There was a horrific shriek and a metallic rattle.  Akiko looked back to see one of the parrots had flown into the middle of the chain-link fence.  It’s clutched the strands of the fence and screeched and screeched and screeched into the face of the neighbor-Derek person.  For his part, he stood there.  He stared at the bird.  He didn't move at all.    
It was...  Almost, it was...  As if he were...  Listening to it.  As if it had something to say to him.  
Akiko shook her head.  That was crazy thinking.  She’d been doing a lot of that.  Entertaining a lot of crazy idea.  Like on her nightly walks.  She found herself looking into back alleys and business doorways and see herself sleeping there.  She would imagine her and Mari searching for safe places to sleep at night after losing what little means she had.  Daniel's survivor benefits only just covered the rent.  
“Tabun tonari no dereku wa nanika omu ni okoraseru koto yatta daro ne?”  
“I don’t think he’d do that.  He likes the parrots.  Knows about about them and stuff.  He wouldn’t want to upset them, I don’t think.”  
Hmm.  He must have done something, Akiko thought.  Maybe they were annoyed about the back light being left on, too.  As she watched, the bird on the fence leapt away.  Another one crashed into the fence, holding on and taking its place, screaming and squawking at the man.  Who just stood there.  Listening.  
Akiko set aside the decision she had promised Mrs. Tomlinson and made another in its place. 

End of Part 1.

Monday, December 08, 2014

My 10 Books (Part 2)

Continuing from where I left off from my last posting, here are the other five books that have had the greatest impact on me in my life thus far.
6) Slaughter House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.
When I write about something in my journal that can't be changed, something I just have to deal with like death or taxes, I follow it with, "And so it goes."  When something tragic or unforeseen happens, I end up thinking about how the Universe is a very busy place and accidents like this are bound to happen.  These are concepts that I picked up from reading the works of Kurt Vonnegut.  
Slaughter House 5 isn't my favorite book of his I've read.  If I were to pick, here and now, my favorite Vonnegut book I would probably say it was the last one I remember reading, Slapstick.  But Slaughter House 5 was the first book that I read of his and it's the one that made me want to read more of him.  So many of the concepts I've encountered in his work, about life and time, love and death, are ones that I've adopted outright or stirred in with my own to flavor them.  Even my own adage on the nature of things, "The universe is like a mafia hit-man.  It IS out to get you, but it's nothing personal," has such a Vonnegut-esque ring to it that I wouldn't be surprised to discover that it's a line from one of his books that I've forgotten reading and think of as mine. 
7) The 300 by Frank Miller.  
My first professional fiction sale came in 1990.  For years, I struggled to figure out how I had done it and duplicate the achievement.  I didn't figure things out until 2008 when I wrote the story, Shadow Angel, which appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction September 2009 issue.  
I can give Frank Miller's The 300 credit for sticking to it for those eighteen years between my first fiction sale and my second.  In between I wrote comic book scripts that I was getting published with a couple of different artists.  Those publications gave me the encouragement to keep writing.  It was reading Frank Miller's, The 300, his take on the story of the Spartans and their stand at Thermopylae, that taught me how to write comic book scripts.  I could go on about Frank's ability to give a page movement through a sequence of static images, without gaudy speed-lines, or how he is almost unsurpassed at telling a story visually, making him, in my opinion, one of the few artist/writers that can draw AND tell a story extremely well.  It would be better if you read his work and see for yourself.  
I will say that learning how to write comic book scripts taught me the structure I needed to write stories that could sell.  Thanks, Frank, for helping me with that.  
8) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.  
This book is here for a single passage in the first half of the book.  
The story is about an American ex-patriate, Frederic Henry, that is fighting with the Italian army during World War One.  There is a scene where, after Henry is wounded, he is transported by ambulance to a military hospital south of the front.  
While being transported, Henry becomes aware that the soldier in the stretcher above him is bleeding.  The blood is seeping through the fabric of the stretcher.  Henry, strapped down in his stretcher, is unable to get up to check the soldier's bandage and can't make himself heard over the rumble of the engine to attract someone's attention to help.  He can only watch as the blood's dripping slows and finally stops.  
The passage is masterful.  The comparison of the bleeding coming to a stop and to the cold of winter outside the ambulance is brilliant.  I read the passage while sitting in my car at the office on my lunch break.  I was late getting back after reading it again and again and again.  I read it a few more times after I got home to be sure it really was as marvelous a piece of writing as I had thought.  It is the prime example of elegance in writing, so simple and yet so powerful.  
9) The Transparent Society by David Brin.
David Brin is one of my favorite science fiction writers.  I could probably describe him as my favorite science fiction writer still living and publishing great work.  But it's his non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, in which he proposes the institutions and practices we should adopt in order to maintain the core right of privacy we all want in light of the growing degree to which we are surveilled and the details of our lives are included in increasingly numerous databases.  
The idea from Brin's book that has impacted my post of view the most is the concept of "sousveillance," the opposite of "surveillance."  Surveillance is those in power watching the people.  Sousveillance are the people watching those in power.  It is not fact that an organization like the NSA can scan our email that's the problem.  It's the fact that we don't know they're doing it and can't tell what it was they are scanning that IS the problem.  
10) 世界から猫が消えたなら (If Cats Disappeared from the World) by Genki Kawamura.  
This is the book I'm reading now.  It is written in Japanese.  As far as I know at this time there is no English translation.  
I had wanted to read a book written entirely in Japanese as a means of language practice.  A member of my Japanese group had suggested I find a book that interested, because if I was interested in the story itself it would be a motivator to keep plugging away even when it got difficult.  
So far, his advise has proven to be true.  I found out about the book from an English language TV show produced by the Japanese broadcasting company, NHK, called Booked on Japan.  In the show various creative people, artists, dancers, designers, directors, are interviewed about their work and are asked to talk about a book they've read that has had the most influence on their work.  One of the episodes featured an interior designer that gave this book as his example.  
The story is about an as yet unnamed postal delivery man who has discovered that his headaches are caused by a cancerous brain tumor.  The prognosis is that he has at most six months to live, but could die at any moment.  
When he arrives home, where he lives with his beloved pet cat, Cabbage, he is greeted by the Devil, who looks exactly like him.  He ends up calling the Devil, "Aloha," because he is wearing a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, even though outside is the middle of winter ("He must have just arrived from someplace warmer," the postal worker thinks to himself).  Aloha tells offers the postal worker a deal.  For everything the postal worker choose to make vanish from the world, Aloha will grant him an extra day of life.  
The concept of the book intrigued me, so I bought a copy at the Japanese bookstore I know of in Little Tokyo.  I love the cover, with the kitten peeking timidly over what looks like the edge of a roof.  I don't know if it's coincidence or if the book is shaping my perception (the latter, I suspect), but reading this book comes at a time when I am encountering events that are having me consider what is important to me and my life, which is the central theme of the book.  I'm expecting that by the time I finish reading the book I'll not only improve my Japanese reading skills, but I will also discover something very important about the priorities of my life.  
These are my 10 books.  What are yours?