Well Hello There, 2013

Yes, yes, it’s been six months since I updated this thing last. But I promise I’ve got some really good reasons.

Second grade, Kindergarten, and Pre-K.

Second grade, Kindergarten, and Pre-K.

After returning from Japan last August, it was a rush to get all the things ready for school. For the first time we had three of the four off for some learnin’, and that required a Herculean effort to pull off–especially considering that in those same 3 weeks we moved across town. And by across town, I mean “nearly 40 miles away”. That may not sound like much, but compound it with jet lag and school preparedness, and you can see how much of a nightmare that can turn out to be.

After that, we had an obscene number of things come up. See, when you have three kids in school, that’s three times the number of events and class-specific festivities you have to attend. And in addition to school, there was work, where I’ve been finishing up a major project–to be launched in the next month!

Then you’ve got the Fall Rush, where you get the hypersonic Holiday gauntlet known as New Hallothanksgivingmas Eve. Once you get into October, the year kind of speeds by until you hit the brick wall that is the cold, dark winter. I don’t know about you, but the first six months of the year seem to take about nine months to get through, while the last six months feels more like two.

And during all of this, my wordsmithing efforts were directed solely at crafting a new novel. And I can say, with some caveats, that I succeeded! It’s done, at 80k words. It’s middle grade fantasy, with a mythological Japanese setting, and it’s tested well with a very small audience and my Most Trusted Alpha Reader.

Artwork by Stephane Imbert.

Awesome concept art by Stephane Imbert.

And now to look back at my resolutions for last year. It wouldn’t be fair to ignore them. Here’s what I promised I’d do in 2012:

1 – Finish writing three drafts.

Well, I finished 2! I finished my multicultural romance set amidst the 2010 tsunami that has died the death of a million edits, and most recently I finished up my MG fantasy. (Yes, yes, I technically wrote The End in the first weeks of 2013).

2 – Cook something new every month.

Failure! While I ended up cooking something every month, and a lot more when my family was in Japan, it rarely ended up being something new. I’ve been too busy to research new, and I feel bad about it.

3 – Read two books a month.

Success! My next post will cover my 2012 reads, and what my TBR pile looks like for 2013. Here’s a preview: CLOUD ATLAS was my favorite last year.

4 – Finish up some of the cross-cultural tales for the blog that are languishing in draft status.

Also success! Not as many as I wanted, but I got quite a few finished. Maybe you can check them out. Perhaps they’ll even entertain you.

Sorry for such a dry post, but I mostly wanted to stick my head above water and say that I’m Alive!

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

I’ve been spending the summer in Japan with the family. Started working on a new project (middle-grade fantasy, Asian-themed), still waiting to hear on some queries from the last project, and just generally enjoying the heck out of  a long break. I’ll be back to regularity sometime in the next few weeks!

 

Happy Birthday

My first child was born in Japan. Getting a copy of her birth certificate will always be a tortuous wild goose chase where the geese have been cross-bred with piranhas and are packing laser rifles. They say you always remember the big milestones in your life with a distinct clarity, and aside from my twenty-first birthday, that’s proven true. The birth of my first child was the most terrifying experience in the history of all my experiences. The terror has only grown with time.

Whenever I tell people this, they smile and nod with that knowing “Yeah, pal, it’s terrifying for all of us that first time around” smarmy look. But looking back at everything that happened, it was objectively horrifying and not simply my emotions getting the best of me.

Before

Before

My wife decided early on to go to a midwifery in Japan. I will forever refer to it as the “spawning vats.” It was this two-story building hidden in a back alley that exuded all the welcoming feelings of a rugged youth hostel crossed with a Soviet-era elementary school. Lots of little spartan rooms with cold tile floors where new mothers would stay with their new babies for a week after birth to ease everybody’s transition into their new roles in life.

The place was run by an ancient obstetrician and associated with a hospital and this was supposed to allay my fears about how dangerous this sounded. Once we had to go to a class that I *think* was supposed to teach us how to not kill the baby. I’d barely been in Japan a few months and my language skills weren’t all that up-to-snuff so I only caught about one in every fifty words the doctor said. Mostly it looked like an inscrutable puppet show to me. I remember it being very hot, and falling asleep once, and my wife jabbing me in the chest with her elbow because I’d been snoring. You know, maybe I deserved the ensuing terror.

The day I got “the call”, I hopped on my bicycle and sped off to the midwifery in this sleepy little neighborhood well north of Tokyo. It was the fastest way to get there as no trains ran close by, calling a taxi would take too long, and we had no car. I got several texts that morning from my wife after “the call” but the one I will always remember simply said “Ouch.”

When I arrived the nurses hurried me into my wife’s room where she was to stay for the week and there was a complete lack of wife in the room. Just me and the bed and the clock. They instructed me to wait, shut the door, and shuffled off with no indication of when they’d be back. I hadn’t gotten a text in a good hour or two at this point. I’m not sure how long I was in that room, but after the minutes faded into half-hours and the half-hours faded into hours and the shadows from the sunlight streaming through the window had moved across at least two floor tiles, the nurses came to retrieve me with a simple “It’s time.”

They took me to a bench in a white hallway lit with a flickering fluorescent light that cast a sickly green glow on everything. Beside that bench was a door and from the other side of the door came the screaming. Not just any screaming. I could pick out at least two distinct voices screaming. Possibly three. My heart went into overdrive as I tried to figure out why so many people were screaming, and why nobody was letting me go in there. One of the voices had to be my wife, but what of the others? Had something gone terribly wrong and the nurses were screaming about how awful it all was? Were there, in fact, eldritch horrors in there screaming with the voices of the damned? I sat there helpless under the lights.

Soon enough they let me into the room and I hesitated for a second. I wasn’t sure I wanted to face whatever was on the other side, but then my wife could be in trouble so I convinced my feet to move. It was a scene directly out of a horror movie. First there were curtains everywhere making what looked like a rather large room feel very claustrophobic. The screams came from behind these other curtains. Another woman had decided to give birth at the exact same time as my wife and the staff were making-do as well as they could.

Second, the room was dark. I mean very dark. The doctor’s theory was that the baby should ease into the world without bright lights, and slowly ramp up the light level as she got accustomed to her new surroundings. Funny, nobody ever thought about a slow ramp for the sound level. A part of the ceiling overhead was unfinished and there were pipes and wires and tubes and all sorts of things you see in a creepy abandoned warehouse hanging up there. And in front of me, behind a curtain, was my wife all splayed out on some chair-like device, gripping onto a bar as if trying not to be snatched away by some awful creature, screaming and giving me a very, very angry look.

And to top it all off, the doctor was standing at the “business end” with a camcorder aimed directly at the action.

What. The. Hell.

We have that cassette tape. For seven years I’ve managed to come up with excuses as to why we don’t need a VCR. Because I know, as soon as we acquire one, my wife will pop that cassette in and I will hear the unholy cries of the damned once more.

After

After

In the end my daughter came out all nice and healthy and they handed her to me and I was terrified that I’d drop her on the tile floor but somehow I survived the encounter. Honestly everything after they gave my daughter back to my wife is a blur. I spent the next week making that bicycle ride 2-3 times a day to visit, always bringing a requested snack from the local grocery store, having fun videotaping this crazy new creature that was my daughter.

But as objectively terrifying as it all was, it was So. Worth. It.

Happy Birthday, Emily. May I live long enough to embarrass you with this and many more stories at your wedding.

Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

My knowledge of the Japanese language is entirely functional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m functionally fluent. If I need to find a bathroom, I can do that. If I need to make special adjustments to a restaurant order, I can do that. If I need to tell my kids to stop chewing on each others’ arms, I can do that, too. I can converse in a rather verbose, if boring and stilted, manner. I cannot, however, write a story. I cannot string together a poem or express complex emotional ideas. I cannot weave a tapestry of words to evoke emotions, to encourage empathy, to fundamentally move a person and leave my mark on them.

And it’s frustrating when I’m in a situation where I have to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, struggling to find a voice in a language I have yet to master, overflowing with emotions to relate but unable to relate them in the right way.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding, they had a slideshow of pictures from the lives of the bride and groom. The first picture of the bride’s life was her as a baby in the smiling arms of my mother-in-law. As related in an earlier post, she died before I ever met her. My first trip to Japan was for her funeral.

All I could think when I saw that picture was how she’d never been able to hold any of her grandchildren like that. How my kids will grow up without their Japanese “ba-san”. How she will never be able to pass on to her daughters that special kind of motherly advice that can only come from one’s own mother.

The next pictures were of my wife and her sister growing up, going through all the various milestones kids go through, with their smiling mother by their side. All these things she’ll never see for her own grandkids, never be able to do with them. I was touched, but at the same time I was standing in the back of the reception hall holding my one-year-old son. I couldn’t break down–it was my job to keep him from breaking down.

But then the last picture came up in the slideshow. The family all stood together, smiling, with a caption whose beauty I can’t exactly translate but is best rendered as: “Her mother watches over her from Heaven.” And that’s when I lost control. I excused myself and walked out of the reception hall and over to the large windows overlooking the city of Nagoya.

It helped that my son chose that moment to go a little nuts, so I had some cover, but that’s not exactly why I left. I’m no stranger to embarrassment–you get used to that marrying into a foreign culture. No, I had to leave because I knew that if anyone asked me what was wrong, why I looked like I’d been chopping onions, I wouldn’t be able to express exactly how I felt. “I’m sad” and “I was moved” are functional phrases. They’re all that came to mind. They’re all I knew how to say in my functional Japanese voice. And they weren’t sufficient. They wouldn’t do the moment justice. So I hid away by the windows, watching the traffic in the streets below for a while to gather my thoughts and let the baby settle down.

As authors, sometimes we struggle to find our own voice. I’m discovering the same is also true when learning a foreign language. It’s my goal to someday be able to tell my Japanese family exactly how I feel in my very own Japanese Ben voice. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s for a good cause.

Family at the Wedding

Actually, five good causes.

Death from Overwork is Forbidden

I noted on Twitter the other day that the chrysanthemum is obviously more important to the Japanese than it is to us Americans because their word for it is simply kiku (菊). I followed this with an observation that they also have a word for “death from overwork”: karoushi (過労死). That word really stuck with me. Here was a culture that experienced this so often they needed a simple vocabulary unit to express it.

During the daytime hours I manage video game development teams. Being the Japanese geek that I am I’ve taken that word and made it part of my team charter: karoushi kinshi (過労死禁止): “Death from overwork is forbidden.” I write it on my whiteboard, I hang posters in hallways, and when people ask me what it means it sparks an interesting discussion–one I know will stick with them every time they come to my office to ask for advice on handling a given problem.

The stories about terrible workplace conditions in the video game industry are fewer than they were 6+ years ago. The industry has acknowledged that months of 80+ hour work weeks are counter-productive and has started taking measures to combat it. I like to think I’ve had a lot to do with that during my tenure across three studios of Electronic Arts. They had one of the worst publicity problems in the industry at the time.

But “death” and “overwork” can apply to far more than salaryman type jobs and shuffling off this mortal coil. Very often we get wrapped up in our own pursuits to the detriment of the relationships we hold dear. For me, this pursuit was writing. It’s been all-consuming these past two years, and I’ve spent all the free time I could carve out between my job and my family writing some books and honing my craft. One night my wife went to bed before me and I stayed up late to get some writing done. The next night, I was really close to finishing some scene or other, so when she asked if I was coming to bed I let her know that I’d be there as soon as I finished up. Two hours later I rolled into the bedroom. Of course she’d fallen asleep, the lights still on, waiting for me.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern with our most passionate pursuits that unknowingly builds barriers between us and our loved ones. Two years later and it’s hard for me to remember the last time my wife and I went to bed at the same time. The worst part of all is that I didn’t even recognize it was happening. No, it was pointed out to me by a friend’s wife–and neither the friend nor his wife know my wife. Yet after I spent just one evening chatting with my friend’s wife, she immediately identified this as a significant problem I needed to address. And she’s right. I can’t believe I went so long without seeing it.

Just like the video game industry. One late night wasn’t so bad. That led to another. Then another. And it all snowballed until the only way to get a game built to budget and schedule was by crunching for weeks or months at a time. There was no malevolent intent, no man behind the curtain–just a blinding passion for one pursuit (in their case, making great games, in my case, writing great books). Like I remind my team that overwork isn’t always the answer, it’s good to have friends (or wives of friends!) there to remind me about the important things in life I’m missing out on or inadvertently allowing to die. Of course this problem will be rectified posthaste with lots of hugs, lots of flowers, and a reasonable bedtime.

過労死禁止。Death from overwork is forbidden. Is there something in your own life that’s suffered as a result of your dedication to a given pursuit? Ever stop to think about it? Perhaps some random blog post by some random guy who talks about random Japanese and writing-related things can spark your awareness of it.

Anything’s possible.

3.11

I’ve had this blog for six months now, and this is the first entry where I’m going to talk about what I’m writing.

My novel, tentatively titled A PETAL OF CHRYSANTHEMUM, features the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I started plotting this back in the summer, and began writing in earnest in September. Before the first draft was finished, I knew there wasn’t enough emphasis on that event, but the concept of going back to make substantial changes paralyzed me. To some extent, it still does.

My wife was born and raised in Japan. I spent a great deal of time there myself. Our ties to Japan run deep. We have friends whose hometowns were affected by the tsunami. I remember March 11, 2011 very well. I didn’t get much work done that Friday. While this was simply a tragic event for most everyone I worked with, for me, it was like watching the towers collapse on September 11th. No, more than that. I sat before my computer reading news stories, English and Japanese alike, watching a live stream from NHK television, the images of fire, destruction, flooding, the displaced, all bundling together to drain the joy, the happiness right out of me. My boss even offered to let me go home to be with my family.

Everyone who came to speak with me in my office that day knew I was distraught. The way my eyes wandered, my lips trembled, my words came slowly, softly.

Today my wife shared this video with me, and I’ll admit it–it took the wind out of me just like March 11th. I had to wipe my eyes a time or three. And after viewing this, that’s when I realized that the pervading uncertain feeling I had about my current work in progress had to be confronted.

I’m starting over. Sort of. Imagine reading a book about a fireman in NYC and his various problems with self-loathing and relationship issues. You get halfway through this relationship drama when 9/11 happens. And while the rest of the story is, in fact, a post-9/11 story, don’t you feel that you’ve cheapened the tragedy a bit by padding the beginning with this relationship drama?

The tsunami was real. People suffered and died. Indescribable damage was done to regions of Japan. Entire cities and families were literally washed away by surges of water topping one hundred feet. I can’t go lightly on this. I can’t treat it cheaply. I’m going back and starting with the tsunami, bringing it to the forefront, not relegating it to a background element, a mere an obstacle in my protagonist’s way.

I have to do it right, or not do it at all.

Ashes and Bone

My first trip to Japan was for a funeral.

When we arrived in Japan, the sun had set.  The city lights of Osaka looked exactly how I’d always imagined Japan would look at night.  Colorful and loud.  Beautiful, in their own way.  I watched countless unintelligible advertisements and brightly-lit office buildings zoom by the train window as an alien voice made announcements over the loudspeakers, likely detailing upcoming stations but she could have been narrating The Great Gatsby for all I knew.

I was entranced by the way my fiancée, Aiko, navigated the overwhelming train and subway maps.  I knew she was at home here, but my complete inability to understand anything that was going on was a very humbling experience.

At the train station closest to her parents’ house, I dragged the suitcases off the train and set foot into this strange new world for the first time.  Seeing it from a window was one thing.  Walking through it, taking in the new smells, the sight of things familiar yet not, was a completely different experience.  It was late in the evening and there weren’t many cars out, but several people were walking about.  I was struck by how everyone looked the same.  I don’t mean that in any insensitive way.  In America you’ve got a myriad of different hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, and so forth.  Here, everyone had black hair, pale skin, and dark eyes.  That feeling of being an outsider sticks with you.

After navigating a twisting maze of narrow streets and alleyways, passing scores of closed shops and quiet bars, we arrived at her parents’ home.

The living room was cloaked from floor to ceiling in white cloth.  In the middle on the floor was a rather plain wooden box, just the right length for an adult to lie down in.  Behind the coffin, up on a pedestal, was a large portrait of the mother-in-law I would never meet, along with flowers of all colors and plaques with Japanese writing on them I’d likely still be hard-pressed to understand.  The room smelled of incense and flowers.

Family members filled the room, sitting on cushions on the floor, sobbing and consoling each other.  I don’t remember meeting my future father-in-law Mr. Nakata or sister-in-law Yuko at all.  Instead, I remember being asked if I wanted to view the deceased.  Aiko was translating, but not very well.  She had a lot on her mind.  I froze for a moment, terrified to do something that would be considered rude or offensive.

I sat down on one of the cushions, convinced I was doing it wrong and everyone would be offended.  In all honesty nobody noticed or cared how I sat down.  I slid up to the coffin and peered into the little glass window that had been left right above the face.  She looked so young.  Peacefully sleeping. White flower petals filled in the spaces between her body and the sides of the coffin.

I realize now, looking back, this was the first time I had sat so close to death.

After closing my eyes and saying a silent prayer, I backed away and sat in a chair in the kitchen.  There was sushi, and I was encouraged to eat.  Aiko had introduced me to sushi only a few weeks prior, and I’d fallen immediately in love with it.  I grabbed some chopsticks and dug in.  It was the first thing I had eaten in twenty four hours.

A man across the room shot me a stern look and said, in Japanese, “Hen na gaijin.”  I didn’t need a translator for that.  “Strange foreigner.”  Then he smiled at me.  He knew I was the odd man out in the situation.  He knew exactly how lost and confused I was with all of this, and he made it a point–even though he spoke not a word of English–to do everything he could to make me feel comfortable.

That man was Aiko’s uncle.  He’ll forever be known as “Hen na Ojisan”.

The next few days were as blurry as the first.  I shared a meal with the family, unable to identify a single thing I ate.  I downed it all anyway, terrified of being rude.  I remember being utterly lost when a Buddhist priest came by to perform a ceremony for the deceased. I watched my uncle-in-law carefully and followed his lead.  I remember him handing me some prayer beads.  I remember the family crying at all times of day and night.  I remember Aiko’s sister getting mad at me for nothing more than being in the same room with her.  I remember making a mad dash to find some black shoes because I hadn’t brought any.

But the thing I remember most clearly was the next to last day of my stay.  The day we went to the crematory.

The ride was silent.  The narrow streets made me nervous, but the driver was an expert.  There was frilly lace everywhere in the taxi, protected from the passengers by thick sheets of clear plastic.  We drove through city streets and out into the countryside, up a mountain until at last we came to the cemetery.

I had no idea what was going to happen.  I don’t think I could have prepared for this moment if I’d studied it for weeks beforehand.  There are things you can never understand until you’ve lived them.

At the crematorium, we stood around the coffin as words were said by one of the staff members, then he rolled it away to be burned.  We sat around in a waiting room, though I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for.  I assumed it was for a box of ashes.  There was a vending machine in the waiting room that served hamburgers.  It grilled them right before your eyes, through a small glass window.  Something about that machine existing in a crematorium made me laugh on the inside.  It was like a dark, cruel joke.

After an hour of waiting, wandering around the lobby and gazing out at the Japanese countryside through the large windows, we were called together.  I followed the family into a cold, stainless steel room with a concrete floor.  All of us stood to one side.  There must have been twenty family members present in all, but I was too nervous to count.

When everyone was lined up, a door on the far end of the room opened and out rolled what looked like a hospital catering cart, covered with a pile of ashes and bone.  I realized with a churn of my stomach that this was the exact same cart the coffin had rested on as it was wheeled off to be incinerated.  That was my future mother-in-law.  And everyone was grabbing chopsticks.

They passed the chopsticks around, each person picking up a bone to put into a small container.  I froze with fear.  Being close to a dead body was hard enough.  Using chopsticks–which I wasn’t the most skilled user of at the time–to pick up the bones of the deceased and put them in a box was something I was not about to do.  Any number of terrible outcomes flashed through my mind.  What if I slipped and flung her jaw across the room?  What if I dropped it on the concrete floor and it shattered?

Aiko’s uncle turned to me and held out the chopsticks.  It was my turn, he gestured.  I swallowed, nodded, and approached the charred remains.  I was surprised at how white it all was, even the ashes.  I grabbed what seemed to be a small finger bone and quickly dropped it into the container before I over-thought the situation and screwed something up.

When it was over, I went outside for some fresh air.  I was trembling uncontrollably, even though it was all behind me.  Aiko’s uncle came outside with me and patted me on the back.  All he said was “OK”, but the way he said it I knew exactly what he meant.  It wasn’t a question.  It was a reassurance.

It’s been nine years since that ordeal, but I haven’t forgotten a single detail of that funeral.  I can still see the ashes and bone in my mind as clear as the day I had to overcome my fear of failure and put them in the box.  Since then I’ve gotten married, lived and worked in Japan, had four children, and gotten to know my Japanese family much better.  My uncle-in-law was one “strange uncle” indeed, and I’ll always hold a special regard for him for helping me find a way through the turmoil of that first trip to Japan.