A Nobel Prize Winner and a Tattoo Artist Walk into a Bar and All the Women Start Crying

This week during my usual slate of time in which I do my best to lose all faith in humanity by perusing the Internet news, I read a blog post by Jane Marie who was denied a neck tattoo and, to put it mildly, was unhappy about it. In fact, she was so unhappy about it that she wrote a scathing rant against the artist, Dan Bythewood, in the tone of, “Can you believe this dickish man wouldn’t ‘let me’ have a neck tattoo?”

The crux of her displeasure is that she, being a near 40 adult female is perfectly capable of making her own decisions as to what to do with her own body. In this she is, of course, absolutely right. Where she is wrong is the assumption that her adult decision and a fistful of dollars entitles her to a tattoo. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t, and the belief that it does draws a line in the sand between the casually tattooed and the culturally tattooed—that is to say, those who treat tattoos as an accessory and those who treat them as a lifestyle.

Now here’s the thing: tattoo artists, being as diverse a group of people as anyone else, each have different ideological lines that they are willing to cross. This particular artist does not like to work on visible areas (hands, necks, faces) of people who are not already heavily tattooed, those who are not clearly invested in tattoos as a lifestyle. Which is fine, this is the position of lots of artists. There are also artists who are willing to cross that line in certain circumstances, as Jane Marie herself admitted. (She later went to an artist who had apparently worked on her before, who agreed to the neck tattoo after giving her a similar caution to the one Dan tried to express.)

Jane Marie wanting a neck tattoo as a casually tattooed 40 something isn’t a problem. Dan denying her the neck tattoo isn’t a problem. There wouldn’t have been a problem at all if the exchange had ended there. But instead of acting like the autonomous adult that she wishes to be respected as, Jane Marie took events to the next level.

She cried sexism:

Dan: “A neck tattoo on someone without a lot of tattoos is like lighting a birthday candle on an unbaked cake.”

Stunning analogy, right? I wonder: Does Dan know what an analogy even is? And then suddenly I’m fighting back tears because, as Dan has already correctly assessed, I’m just a feeble-minded, hysterical girl. And then I ask the next thing that pops into my head.

Me: “Would you say this to a guy?”

Dan luh-hiterally paused, looked askance, and said with a slight nod, unconvincingly, “Yeah.”

Then he asked if we were ready to get started on the other tattoos, and I was so infuriated I cannot remember exactly what I said but it was something to the effect of, “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not going to give you money after that, let alone have you touch me or put art on my body!” And then we walked out.

Pause for face-palm.

Ok, I understand being upset and disappointed about not being able to do something you’re really excited about. We’ve all been there. But for a woman whose whole argument for getting the thing she was denied is that she’s a big girl who can make her own decisions, she sure doesn’t act like it.

The real kicker though is the tacit accusation of sexism, which is a stretch to say the least. Unless I’m missing something in both Jane Marie’s and Dan’s accounts of how this all went down, nothing was said to suggest that Dan was acting in malice against her sex. By using sexism in her argument, Jane Marie highlights the massive frivolity with which feminism is sometimes employed, which further discredits the spirit of the movement at a time when social justice backlash is becoming aggressively and viciously vocal.

Her stunning overreaction also cements the notion that we women are unable to contain or control ourselves, an idea that is still so prevalent in society that Nobel-Prize winning biologist Tim Hunt felt it would make a good joke for a dinner gathering hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations:

 …let me tell you about my trouble with girls…Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.

Pause for second face-palm.

 Hunt’s official and unofficial statements are in conflict, of course. In one account he says he was nervous and said the first, ill-advised thing that came to his head. In the other he says that he was speaking more from truth than in jest. Whichever version you believe has more weight, the more pressing problem is the worldview that not only incubated this, but allowed it to continue to thrive into the 21st century, a time when women are still vocally calling for recognition and equality. Even if this was nothing more than innocent, jittery word vomit, something in what he said apparently didn’t seem at all sexist to him, otherwise why in the hell did he say it at a gathering hosted by female scientists? That he was apparently so blind to how his comments might be taken shows a flabbergasting level of societal disconnect and male privilege that is heartbreaking from a feminist perspective.

Women have taken immeasurable pains in the past and present to be recognized as humans and professionals whose thoughts and opinions matter, especially in STEM fields and still, still we find ourselves as the butt of some bro-scientist’s sexist joke about Lady Emotions.

If ever there was a time to fling around indignant feminist rage against someone being offensively patronizing, this was it. Yet, in contrast to Jane Marie’s rant, female scientists responded in humor with the #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign, proving that some of us can control our raging Lady Tears, even when others choose to make a mockery of us.

Taiken Japan: Arima Onsen

A little while back I took up my first freelance writing job with Taiken Japan, a Japanese travelogue site where foreign residents in Japan write about all the fantastic little things they find here. Not that it’s hard. Japan is filled with so many treasures, big and small, that even living here for five years I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Still, there are a few places that have touched such a soft spot in our hearts that Alex and I have visited them more than a few times while living here, even though they are somewhat out of the way and a pain to get to. In fact, that they are out of the way and a pain to get to might be precisely why we like going there. Tourists–even Japanese tourists–are comparatively rare, and the atmosphere is quiet and quaint, just the sort of place a writer might like to go for a few hours of relaxing escape to hammer out a few more pages.

Arima onsen is perhaps my favorite of these little weekend getaways that we’re fond of. An onsen is traditionally a natural hot spring, but the word can also mean water that is pumped out of a natural hot spring and used for a public bath. Arima is a hot spring resort town near Kobe that is absolutely filled with small town charms and delights. To read more about Arima, check out my Taiken article here.

And if you can’t wait, here’s a little gallery of pictures to give you a taste of just how charming this hot spring town is:

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On Packing One’s Life

IMG_2627One of my very first posts on this blog was a happy introduction to my bookshelves. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I bring you this image today. A photo of empty bookshelves is truly heartbreaking, especially knowing that these three were once full of great books.

But with the clock ticking on our final year in Japan, preparations for the move back are starting early. As much as I love to come home to shelves heavy with books, I’m in agreement with Alex that the books need to be shipped first, while we still have the money to do it.

Pretty much as soon as we decided that we were moving back I adopted a ‘no book left behind’ policy. Alex tried to fight this at first, but in this I’m firm. I can’t part with a book. Not one book. Not even the books I really didn’t enjoy. I would feel their loss acutely, if even one of my literary herd vanished. At least we both like books enough to place them as first priority of the things we move.

IMG_2626So yeah, boxing up our life of the past five years began last month and it has been hard on both of us. Being in our late twenties, this was really our first time living on our own, living together, making it work as adults do. It’s always hard to uproot oneself from one place to another. As items from the house you’ve become so familiar with begin to disappear, it really hits home that you’re leaving, that this place that has been a part of you for the past however many years is truly going to be left in the past. All of life is a transition, but I can’t think of anything else that more clearly expresses that, all at once, than moving. We must dismantle and pack every aspect of our lives, both material and memorial, from the last five years and ship them off to another country. Each box that is taped up and sent off leaves the house we’ve called home a little emptier and a little colder. Soon we’ll be standing in its shell. A soulless body ready to accept another family after us.

And I’m sorryIMG_2628 to get all sappy and poetic with this, but it’s hard to put these emotions into words. When packing started, Alex and I both fell into melancholy. Since Alex did the packing herself she experienced it more strongly. I think I’ve mostly been mentally and emotionally avoiding the issue, though moving is coming whether I’m ready for it or not.

We have moments of excitement, of course. We’re going to be stepping into a new stage in our lives: grad school and publishing for her and finally finishing my degree for me. Turning an eye toward the future helps keeps our spirits up while we prepare to say good bye to far too many happy memories in Japan.

And really, that’s what makes this the most difficult. The books will be waiting for us when we get back to Canada. I have no doubt that we’ll be able to make a life just as good if not better than the one we’ve made here. Together, Alex and I have managed to overcome some huge hurdles and carve out a very comfortable life. No, I’m not worried about the future, but what can I say? The present is pretty damn awesome as well. Japan has been and continues to be good to us. When the day comes, I’m going to be terribly sad to close this chapter of our lives. I’m not ready to leave, but some changes have to be made before one is truly ready.

So goodbye for now books. So long bookshelves. Farewell to our time in Japan. It’s been swell. I’ll miss you, but it’s time to move on.

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Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #174

Last week I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue #174 for Tangent Online Magazine. I was really impressed by the stories in the second issue of May. Maybe it’s just that my tastes in fiction run in the same vein as BCS, but I have really enjoyed reviewing them this month. Yoon Ha Lee and Kay Chronister are both fantastic writers who have a wonderful way with words. Go read my review here, and read the original fiction here, when you have the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

10 Ways Writing Is Like A Martial Art

With my third try for 3rd dan in kendo coming up in a little over a month, a lot of my time, energy and stress is going toward studying and training, leaving me with little left over for writing or blogging. That isn’t to say that I’m not thinking about my keyboard mashing. In fact, the more I train, the more I realize that the two pursuits are painfully similar.

10. Everything You Think You Know Is A Lie

Some time before you decide to start writing, each of your favorite authors is to you like some sort of superhuman word god. Such beauty, such incredible evocative power defies simple descriptors like skill, practice and back breaking perseverance. No, these people are just born great. Words flow from their fingertips effortlessly. Whole books are born from their minds in the span of a single night’s worth of dreaming. They transcend humanity. They make it look easy. In fact, they make it look so easy that you can do it yourself, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Which isn’t to say that you can never reach that level of awesomeness, but rather what you see on the page isn’t an accurate representation of all the hours upon hours of work and struggle that went into just a single book. And then there’s what accumulated before that in toilet water manuscripts and rejections. Anyone can write a book these days, writing a good book can take years, even before that book is a twinkle of inspiration in the author’s eyes.

Similarly, do you know how long you have to wait to even attempt 8th dan in kendo? Ten years. The governing body of the sport requires you to train for at least ten years after achieving 7th dan before attempting the exam for the highest rank, and even then you are almost guaranteed to fail on your first try. Watching high ranking kenshi fight is like watching a bird fly. It’s so natural you wonder why they even bother to test at all. Then you attempt what they do and you move like an elephant with five feet. It should be easy! Jump forward and hit the other guy on the head. Nothing in the world could be simpler. But what you don’t know when you first start out is that each seemingly simple motion is dictated by a series of very precise, very complicated rules. It’s not as simple as just hitting someone on the head. The angle of every joint in your body, which part moves first, and where each part ends up all factor into determining whether or not that hit is valid. For a beginner, adapting to all these rules is a lot like fishing with a paper net which inevitably means…

9. You Will Rage Against The Rules Until You Understand Them

Almost every novice writer I know (myself included) has had a moment of, “they just don’t get me!” Whether it’s a staunch defense of adverbs or a passionate speech in favor of clichés, at one point or another we all want to justify something we have produced, even when it’s objectively terrible. Rules like “no head hopping” and “no Mary Sues” and “mercilessly destroy passive voice” start to feel like The Man trying to stifle your creativity. It’s art, it’s all about being special and unique and breaking the rules. If you want to write, “Jane woke up suddenly. She blinked her eyes lazily while scanning the room abstractly before happily barking, ‘It was all just a dream!'” then damnit, who are they to tell you you’re wrong?!

It takes effort to move past this egotistical stage. A lot of writers never do. Those who can suddenly find themselves in the equally difficult situation of finding fault in everything. All at once those heroes, those god-like writers who were once your idols now wear their stains of ignorance all over their once clean white shirts. How dare this award winning author change the point of view mid-scene?! It’s a cardinal sin of writing! You’ve been told as much on countless rejection slips! And this one here is choking the life out of the story with exposition. It’s interesting exposition, but the sin of exposition is still there! It’s unfathomable that these people are published and you are not!

The final stage of this, of course, is realizing that the rules are only there to help you understand the elements of good writing. They aren’t carved into stone tablets as the fifty (or more) commandments of writing. Some of them are more valid than others and what’s more, literature is a living, evolving beast. Styles and tastes differ between generations as much as they differ between editors. Gradually you begin to recognize that knowing how and when to break the rules is just as important as knowing the rules themselves, but one must come after the other.

When I first started kendo I had to re-learn how to move. They way we step and the way we swing our arms is so completely counter-intuitive to how usual, every day motion works that it’s like being reduced to an awkward toddler all over again. Teachers and senior kenshi bombard us from all sides with rules: feet parallel; heel to toe, one fist apart; heels off the ground–that’s too high–back straight, shoulders down, arms rounded and relaxed; legs straight, knees unlocked; now hold this stick in both hands a fist away from your belly button and shuffle forward without bobbing up and down. After two months of that it’s no wonder that half the people who start, quit. “I can’t move like that! My body doesn’t bend that way! If my legs are straight, how am I supposed to move forward?” The rules are endless, complicated and impossible to integrate in the first half a year of training. You start to wonder what’s the point of sticking to them when you can just as easily reach your target by leaning forward with your arms instead of crossing the distance from the hips.

And oh boy, when you first notice that one senior kenshi who fights with his left foot at a thirty degree angle, you can feel the rage build up, ready to blow out your ears in a comical gush of steam. You want nothing more than to pull that guy aside and correct him, as he has corrected you. You start to notice all the little ways people get around the rules and still end up making completely valid hits. That one guy who never has his shinai in the center manages to score against you every. Single. Time. What the bleeding F?! Obviously it’s time to ask around and try some of these things out for yourself. That’s when you discover…

8. It’s A Lot Of Painful Trial And Error

Having a stack of style guides, a shelf full of writing reference books and even a mentor is great, but until you put words on the page yourself, you’ll never know what you’re truly capable of. The unfortunate reality is that when you start out, what you’re capable of is mostly finger painting vague hieroglyphs in poop and poster paint on colorful construction paper. Alright, that was an exaggeration, but I challenge you to look back on your earliest writings and not feel that it’s not at least a little true. Having just established that writing rules are a bullshit road map, what you’re left with is discovering how to write on your own. Picture entering a pitch black room. Your goal is to reach the door on the other side, but there are walls and bottomless pits all over the place, god knows where, but they’re around somewhere. Occasionally, someone a little farther than you along the path lights a match and holds it aloft until it burns out. If you’re extremely lucky, there will be people stationed next to the worst traps who will paddle your ass and say, “That way stupid.” Aside from that, though, you get no other guidance. That’s what it’s like teaching yourself how to write.

Sometimes every word you lay down in a day feels like the most godawful thing to ever be aborted out of the English language. It can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere but deeper into the dung pile. Suddenly everyone around you is achieving overnight success and you can’t get your story past, “One day, Jack woke up.” You might sit at your desk and pull the words out one at a time with the same excruciating pain of waxing your entire body in sequential three inch squares. You’ve received your forty-ninth form rejection and your tears have literally been replaced with whiskey. Banging your head on the keyboard in despair creates a deeper literary masterpiece than the entirety of what you’ve accomplished to date.

It is torture.

But the more you fail the more you learn. After a while you start to prize the personalized rejections more than the acceptances. For every time you fall flat on your face, you learn to tie your shoe laces a little tighter. The criticism hurts and no one is ever going to tell you otherwise but you get a little better each time. Every critique that tears your work apart, every book you read critically, every time you analyze a passage that just isn’t working, you’re adding to your toolbox and eventual success, no matter how far in the distance that is. But it takes failing first. It takes writing something and throwing it to the wolves. It takes blood, sweat and tears.

Here are some fun stories from my eight years of practicing kendo: I once literally coughed blood into my face guard. I had my toe stomped on so hard that the nail split right down the center resulting in more blood than you’d think possible from a single digit. My entire right forearm turned black from the number of times it was hit. I’ve had strings of bruises trailing along my upper arm that looked as though I lost a fight with a tennis ball machine. My ribs have been purpled to such an extent that even “I fell down some stairs” wouldn’t be enough to explain them. They hurt, of course, but for each cluster of bruises I get, I learn to be more careful. I learn to move faster, to guard better, to block more effectively. Theory is great, practicing and muscle memory are wonderful, but until you actually fight someone you never know where you’re deficient. The bruises are physical reminders of where I need to improve. They’re badges of achievement along the way.

Oh, and if all those sound like off putting injuries to you, let me say that I’ve gotten off easily. One of the senior kenshi in my club broke his ankle at a tournament this year. In the past, a guy straight up died when an improperly maintained shinai splintered and stabbed him through the eye. We wear protection, but it’s by no means fool proof. Kendo is a semi-contact sport in which the entire premise is to hit the other guy with a flimsy piece of wood. Accidents happen, and when you’re trying to get an edge on an opponent or improve your technique, pushing yourself beyond the limits of your body is not an unheard of outcome. Especially when you consider that…

7. Fixing One Problem Collapses The Whole System

So you’ve been writing for a while now. You’re pretty comfortable with the rules, with style and with your burgeoning voice. You’ve even reached the point where you can identify some of the prominent problems in your own prose. Great! Congratulations. Now you have to fix them.

Around this time you’ll make the unhappy realization that not only does one plot hole cause your entire Jenga tower to wobble, but fixing it requires you to deconstruct the entire thing. There’s a lot to be said for simply sitting down and writing whatever comes to your mind. It’s a good way to get the ideas on the page without the nagging concerns of, “does this sound OK?” or “is this even English?” The problem with this technique is that you then have to decode it in the editing stage, which can be daunting when you read through your work and find gems like, ‘she knifed at him.’ (WTF, brain?) You’ll find that when you start making changes to one part of your story, it’ll necessitate changes in other parts, as though the entire thing is just a web woven by the world’s laziest spider. It’s maddening to have to go back over the entire thing with a fine toothed comb to make sure it all makes sense after an edit. What’s worse is when you start to get so familiar with your story that you either make changes in your head or skip over the mistakes altogether because the vision you have is perfect in your little thought bubble. Once you start editing what you thought was a solid story, you find that the whole thing is as unstable as a five year-old with a fist full of Pixy Stix.

In all the Japanese martial arts that I’ve practiced (three) the common saying between them is “fix one thing, break three” (or five, or ten, depending on how cynical the teacher is). As soon as you start to get comfortable with your own ability and all the new ways that you had to teach your body to move, someone will come along and give you a single correction. It could be as simple as adjusting the height of your arms or the tension in your belly. But that one correction will undo everything else you’ve worked for. Suddenly you’ve got two left feet, your arms don’t know how to arm anymore, and you’re trying to move your body like you’ve just received it for the first time. This, of course, leads to even more corrections of your suddenly flailing technique and before you know it you’re back to the very start, all over again. It has to be one of the most frustrating feelings in kendo, but it is an incredibly necessary one. “Back to basics” is what our teacher used to say. The continuous return to the fundamentals of the sport is what keeps our bodies, our minds and our techniques sharp. Once you understand that you realize…

6. The Most Valuable People Are The Ones Willing To Break You

If you want someone to praise your work, go ask your mom. (The exception being my own mother who told me that my latest story was boring and unoriginal. I love you, Mom.) The need for people to be objectively critical of our writing is key to our success. Sure, it feels great to be told that your story is incredible and that your prose is flawless and evocative, but you also need people to tell you that your characters are two dimensional and your conflict doesn’t go anywhere. You need people who will stab your work through the heart, bleed it out and then beat you over the head with its corpse. You need people with the guts to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Finding critiquers, beta readers and editors can be challenging because of the need to find that perfect individual who 1) can understand what you’re trying to do, 2) knows what the hell they’re on about and 3) will lay it out for you clearly and without mercy where your problems are. It takes a lot of searching to find the perfect fits. You’ll discover very quickly who is reliable and who isn’t and once you find that perfect reader, hold on and never let go. Shower them with gifts, kiss their feet, name your first child after them. One perfect critiquer is worth more than fifty praise-givers.

I have a bully in my kendo club. He mercilessly taunts and corrects me, doesn’t pull his hits, gives no quarter if I’m injured and won’t stop a fight until I land a good hit, even if I’m too tired to know which way is up or down. When we fight the tension between us is truly life or death.

He is my favorite person of all to practice with.

Fighting with the people who will go easy on me because I’m a woman, or because I’m a foreigner, or because I’m lower rank is a welcome relief at times, but I improve the most from people like my bully who push and push and push until I either break or get better. Despite how painful it is, I need the push. I need the sink or swim mentality. Being told, “You landed some good hits today” is wonderful, but what I really look forward to at the end of practice are the teachers who say, “Here is what you’re doing wrong.” But receiving criticism is only half the battle because…

5. Learning How To Deal With Blows Is Crucial

The cold fact of the matter is that the world is a cruel place, and having barfed a collection of words into it doesn’t automatically make you immune from cuts and jabs. After you’ve recovered from the hard truth as laid out by your fantastic beta readers, after you’ve fixed all that you can fix and there’s nothing more you can do for your word-baby, it must be sent out to be judged. To editors, in all likelihood your work is just another number in the pile. Having done slush reading in the past, I can say honestly that there’s no biased animosity toward authors who submit, even when it seems that the author took the term, ‘submission guidelines’ a little too loosely. Having received rejections in the past, I can say honestly that they feel like a slap in the face. Reading those infamous lines, “Sorry, we’re going to pass on this one” feels like the worst sort of personal attack. Clearly there is just something about your face that the editor didn’t like because the story is fine.

I don’t think any one of us who receives rejections has escaped the “But–Grrr–It’s not fair” reaction, and it’s perfectly understandable. It’s also one of those things best screamed into a pillow rather than violently ejected onto the Internet. It hurts, yes, but throwing a tantrum isn’t going to change anything other than damaging your professional credibility. It likewise isn’t helpful to dwell on how much rejections (and criticisms) hurt. Making mistakes, being called out on them and then most importantly learning from them is the only way to improve.

And in case you believe that self publishing gives you an easy out from these hits to the ego, let me say that reviewers–especially independent ones–are merciless. Editors at least have a professional obligation to be courteous in their rejections. Reviewers have no such leash and have every right to say whatever they damn well please about your writing. I think by this point it goes without saying that you should never, never, never contact a reviewer to dispute a review. Please, just don’t do it.

In kendo, all the bruises and bleeding don’t stop just because you improve a little. Senior kenshi and teachers just find more creative ways to whack you on the places with the least amount of protection. Eventually, you just stop feeling it when it happens. The nerves numb to the blows and you develop this curiously thick hide, like a layer of callous between your skin and your muscle. Even being hit on the elbow or the wrist joint doesn’t hurt enough to slow me down these days. It’s a combination of being used to the feeling and needing the uninterrupted focus to continue fighting that dulls the pain enough to reach my goal, even if that goal is just to keep going until the clock runs out. It’s a hard thing to teach yourself, to ignore the pain and continue. But when the hits are inevitable, the pain becomes a part of the experience and with practice, eventually it falls off the radar. The difficult thing, though is not throwing in the towel after the first dizzying blow, and that’s why…

4. Your First Success Will Always Be Not Quitting

My writing sucks. Why am I doing this? I’ll never be a writer. I should just quit now. Hands up those of you out there who have had some variation of this thought at some point throughout their professional career. I’m going to assume it’s most, if not all of you for the purpose of making this argument work, and also because my hypothetical readers always think exactly the same things that I do. A career in writing might be harder now than it has ever been. The rise of digital media and self publishing means that the pool of writers and their work is expanding faster than my waistline over Christmas vacation. Competition for contracts with agents and traditional publishers is fierce, and it seems like the goal posts for what is ‘in’ in the literary world are always changing. The temptation to throw your hands in the air and embark on a more lucrative occupation (like an alpaca farm) is high, but you know that old adage about outrunning a bear? How you don’t have to be faster than the bear, only faster than your poor friend who you trip in cold blood so that the bear has some other warm, screaming body to tear into while you get away without consequence? Writing is a lot like that, except that the bear is time. You don’t have to write a perfect literary masterpiece straight out the gate. You don’t have to get that six figure deal on the first try, or the second, or the third, or the tenth. You just have to outlast all the others who will give up before you. Time will wear down their resolve until you’re stepping over the corpses of broken dreams to reach for the top. Perseverance is the name of the game. And sure, some people have a longer road to walk than others, and it’s an exhausting, sometimes soul crushing journey but if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. One small step at a time, you’ll get there. But there will be days when you have to convince yourself that it’s worth it first, and believe me, you are your own worst enemy.

I can’t tell you how many times in almost a decade of kendo that I’ve asked, Why do I do this to myself? exhausted, dripping with sweat, every muscle in my body screaming for rest, dizzy from dehydration and the inability to breathe. Sometimes the only answer to that question is “because,” but if that’s what it takes to get you up and fighting again, take hold of it and don’t let go. After every crash the desire to give up gets stronger. Every plateau in skill makes it harder to find a reason to keep fighting. Five kenshi in a row have beaten my ass so thoroughly that I wonder what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years. So why keep going? Because. Because this is what I do. Because this is what I enjoy. Because…

3. When It’s Bad, It’s Very, Very Bad, But When It’s Good, It’s Euphoric

Losing really sucks, even when the only other competitor in the race is yourself. Writing is a very solitary activity when it comes right down to it, and when you’re sitting there, staring at a blinking cursor reminding you like the impatient tap of a foot that you haven’t written a word in two hours it can feel like falling imperceptibly down a bottomless pit. If Facebook is to believed (why are you checking Facebook? Get back to writing!) all your friends are off skydiving, having orgies and experiencing life in fantastic ways that you can only dream of. Or not, since the quietly blank page in front of you is proof that you haven’t dreamed up one goddamn thing. Go ahead, bang your head against the desk, drink a seventh cup of coffee, make a house of cards. Nothing is going to break this writer’s block. You’re done. You’re finished. All the words you once had in you are gone. The well of ideas is dry. There’s nothing left to do but let yourself hollow out into a husk of has-been or never-was.

Then, one day you wake up and the words are falling like rain. Like champagne rain. The drought is over. Your fingers can’t keep up with all the wonderful new concepts and characters, bursting out of your skull like a double rainbow. You can’t remember why you were ever worried. Run out of ideas? Ha! The thought is laughable. See, you’ve written three thousand in an hour and a half. You’re unstoppable. Your genius is palpable. You’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s going to go somewhere. It’s one to be proud of.

This roller-coaster of highs and lows is maddening. When you’re on top you can’t see the climb it took to get you there. You’re too pleased with occupying a creative high place to remember all the struggles that came before it. Conversely when you’re experiencing a down period, those moments when the words came easily feel utterly unobtainable. They must have been someone else’s memories implanted into your brain. Even, “I did this once, why can’t I do it again?!” isn’t very comforting.

Here in Japan, summer is my worst enemy. As a Canadian, I was born and conditioned in a cool climate. Summers back home are dry and don’t reach much higher than thirty-two degrees Celsius in an average year. In Japan, summer has made it its mission to destroy me. Temperatures in July and August soar up to thirty-seven degrees Celsius with humidity than can reach as high as seventy percent on a cloudless day. Under these conditions, life becomes a series of mad dashes to the next air conditioned location. Unfortunately for me, none of the places where I practice kendo have air conditioning. When things get really bad they open some windows and maybe turn on an electric fan. Even the venues that do have air conditioning aren’t sufficient when you’ve got upwards of five hundred people screaming and sweating within them. Clouds of perspiration become their own, indoor weather patterns.

In the five years that I have lived here, I’ve noticed a disturbingly consistent trend: In the fall and winter I’m unstoppable. My energy is high, my body moves the way I command it to, and I’ve got an endless reserve of spirit to keep me going. In the summer, however, I move like I’ve got an elephant on my back. My legs are rooted to the ground and my arms feel like they’ve got twenty pound weights attached to them. The air is so thick I feel like I’m drowning, and if I don’t drink at least three liters of water a day, I will have a hangover the next morning, even without the aid of alcohol. It is so disheartening to move like the wind one week, and like frozen molasses the next. What’s worse is that there’s nothing that can be done about it except to suck it up and pretend that you’re not suffering in your own personal hell. But if you can hold onto the feeling of bliss when everything else is falling apart you come to a point where you realize that…

2. The Struggle Is Real, But So Is The Pay Off

“We’re happy to inform you that your story has been accepted for publication.” Wait, you should read that again. Happy. Your story. Accepted. Publication. Oh sweet cinnamon, you did it! You finally got someone to buy your work. It took weeks and months and years. It took gaining twenty pounds and giving yourself carpal tunnel. It took forgetting what sleep and the kiss of your significant other feels like but damnit it was worth it! You’re going to be published! You! You never thought you’d see the day and yet here you stand, triumphant.

It’s in these moments that you forget everything that came before this point. All the tears and heartbreak, all the hours spent editing, all the previous rejections and stamps of NO GOOD you’ve seen in bright red on your manuscript. All that is behind you, and when you look back you realize that not only could you do it all again, but you will, because there is no greater feeling than the one you’re feeling now. The one where all your hard work has come to fruition. You are now a published author. Congratulations.

In kendo there are many little things that are big triumphs. The first time a teacher is legitimately surprised when you score a point on them, the first time (or really any time) you pass a test, even being invited on the team for a tournament is a big deal. Every little triumph pushes your ambition a little further toward that highest point, whatever that might be for you. Like writing, once you taste that instant of success, the difficulties you endured along the way suddenly seem insignificant. It’s alright to take a moment to revel in this small victory. Pat yourself on the back and raise a glass, and while we’re on the subject…

1. Everyone Is Drunk And You Will Be Too

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac. Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas and O. Henry. Back in the day, all the great writers were alcoholics. So much so that a bottle was almost as important as a typewriter. Even today you’ll hear successful writers talk about their nightly drinking habits with the same casual tones as if they were describing the weather. What is it about alcohol that seems to drive the creative spirit? Honestly, I don’t know, but a shot after each rejection certainly helps get the ball rolling, I’m sure. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that alcohol (beer in particular) helps stimulate creativity. Because alcohol lowers your inhibitions and removes a lot of the pesky worries that can freeze a writer up, the brain has more power available to it to devote to building the foundations of a story. There’s also something to be said for putting yourself in an altered state of mind just to slap the brain awake from what might be a stagnant state. Now, I’m not about to advocate substance abuse here, but if a glass of red wine a night is healthy for your heart, certainly a pint of beer a day can give your brain a nice boost. Just, maybe don’t drink yourself to death.

I had done kendo for all of three months when I first learned that the actual hitting people with sticks part is only half of what kendo is. The other half is getting roaring drunk after practice (and secretly hoping the teachers pay). This comes largely from the drinking culture of Japan, where company men (and less frequently women) work long hours and then must wine and dine clients and colleagues until all hours of the night. Drinking in Japan is both an obligation and a pastime, and politeness demands that if you are invited for a drink your only excuse for declining is to be dead or dying. If it’s the latter you’re still obligated to take part in a single draft beer before crawling home to write out your Will.

Admittedly, an ice cold mug of beer is exceptionally wonderful after practice, and taking the time to laugh with and get to know the people you are routinely caned by goes a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable. During practice there isn’t a lot of time to chew the fat with other kenshi. Staring at your opponent through a heavy, metal grill doesn’t do much to put a human face on the people you’re practicing with either. But once again, beer comes to the rescue and shoos away those inhibitions until even the shiest of kenshi are cracking jokes. In fact, drinking is so integral to kendo life that at multiple dojo and in two different countries I have heard it referred to as “second practice.” We drink, have fun, compare bruises and then the next week we do it all again. This sport is great.

Capsule Adventures in Japan

Strange things are kind of par for the course in Japan. Just take a look at this website completely devoted to showcasing all the weird things that arise from Japanese pop culture. Toys are no exception to the rule, and in a country where toys are only loosely meant for children, some of the things you can buy here are downright bizarre.

The mall near our house recently opened an entire capsule arcade, and in a spurt of forgetting the value of my pocket change, I decided to take a tour and splurge a little. If you’re not familiar with them, capsule machines are those little hand crank, gumball like devices that take your dollars and give you a cheap plastic toy in a plastic bubble in return. They are crazy popular here and can be found in any place where kids are sure to gather. This photo gallery is by no means exhaustive. I’ll probably have to do a follow up some time in the future, but for now, here is a taste of all the strange things you can get from a little plastic ball. Warning: This one is image heavy.

Characters

Obviously in the birth place of anime and manga, character prizes are going to top the list for most popular capsule toy. They certainly are the most common. Anpan Man, which is a show about talking, anthropomorphic red bean donut has a crazy number of capsule machines in the arcade, which leads me to believe that this place is supposed to be for five year-olds. At least until you see the iPhone thong, but we’ll get to that later. Sailor Moon swag is also pretty common, since this is the year of the 20th anniversary and the release of *gag* Sailor Moon Crystal. Many of the rest of these I have no idea what they are. If you know, be sure to tell me in the comments.

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Animals

This one is pretty easy to understand. Who doesn’t like adorable little plastic animals adorning every flat surface of their homes? Some of them though, I have to wonder why they have their own toy. Sea cucumbers?!

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Food

The obsession with tiny things carries right on to food items. Things like tiny curry and rice, tiny ramen and tiny sushi can be found all over the place in capsule machines. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of storage space before I could document them all.

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Animals That Are Food

No, not animals that we eat, but literally cute animals dressed as food. I don’t know, you tell me.

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Random Toys & Accessories

Sometimes you don’t want a toy to be a thing. Sometimes you just want a toy to be a toy. Capsule has you covered.

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Random Objects

And other times you want your toys to be miniature representations of things you see in your every day life.

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???, XXX & WTF, I don’t even

Honestly, I don’t know. Some of the things you can buy in Japan defy explanation. Why does an iPhone need a futon? Probably for the same reason it needs a thong. How did the character advising people to stop stealing movies at the cinema get so popular that he has his own action figure? I honestly couldn’t say. The only comment I’ll leave here is that these were all located in the same store. You can buy toy cigarettes right next to Anpan Man in Japan. I don’t know if that’s innocent or depraved.

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The Review That Wasn’t: Perdido Street Station

Last week I finally, finally finished reading Perdido Street Station. It took me a full six months to get through that book, and I wanted the world to know what I thought about it. I rolled up my sleeves put my fingers to the keys and began typing. At about 1,500 words I noticed a speck of dust on my brand new laptop. As I was innocently brushing it off, I must have hit some key combination, or clicked a button that then caused the WordPress editor to refresh. I lost the whole review. Every word. No auto-saves. (All the writers reading this are cringing and hearing phantom screams of “NOOOOOOO!” echoing through their heads right now.) In any case, I decided that for a book that I really didn’t enjoy that much, it wasn’t worth my time to spend another two hours recalling what I had written to recreate the post that I’d lost, so here’s the tl;dr version of the review of a book that, in hindsight, I really wish I’d marked as tl;dr at the 300 page point:

perdido-street-stationone and a half stars

The Good:

– Very imaginative, rich world to explore. Everything feels very tangible.
– Many interesting concepts and world building details.
– The Weaver.
– Lemuel Pigeon.

The Bad:

– 600 pages and only half felt like actual story.
– 250 pages in and the plot finally starts.
– The majority of the characters are bland and uninteresting.
– Two of the three main antagonists are completely unnecessary.
– Tangents, tangents, tangents.
– Emotion bled out of scenes that are reported retroactively.
– Fleetingly interesting characters are never heard from again.
– Several pages of lengthy description that could be (and eventually were) skipped with no detriment to story comprehension.
– The death of Lemuel Pigeon.
– 25 pages of describing laying cables.
– Deus ex Remade.
– Lin and her entire story arc.
– The terribly anticlimactic monster reveal.
– The terribly anticlimactic ending.
– The unresolved Construct Council conflict.
– The unresolved Motley conflict.
– The unresolved Militia conflict.
– The unresolved Yagharek conflict.
– The clumsy inclusion of the dock workers conflict.

In the end, the whole reason why I didn’t just give up on this book was that the writing is pretty good. Is it worth the slog? I don’t know. It depends on what you look for in a book. If deep, rich worlds full of creativity and diversity are your thing, then yeah, this book will probably do it for you. If you prefer characters and tidy plots, then this book is almost guaranteed to frustrate you.

The next book on my reading list is Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner.

Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #173

My review of issue #173 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is up on Tangent right now. The stories by Marissa Lingen and Bill Powell are wonderfully written, and if you want to compare your thoughts to mine, I recommend having a look. The audio version of Bill Powell’s “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” is especially pleasing, and has an extended cast of voices to celebrate the 150th podcast reading. In my opinion, this story is best listened to, rather than read.

Interview: N J Magas

njmagas:

A little while back I was interviewed by Asexual Artists, a blog dedicated to giving exposure to creatives who don’t have any sexual preference. The goal is to promote solidarity among asexuals who may be feeling out of place within a society that is hyper sensitive to all things sexual, as well as showcasing our art, our processes, and our experiences as asexuals. While I don’t often talk about my sexuality as it is such a small part of who I am, I’m in favor of building a voice for those who don’t have much of one, and lent Asexual Artists my experiences toward that end.

Originally posted on Asexual Artists:

Today we’re joined by N J Magas.  N J is a very talented writer who writes fantasy, sci-fi, and horror.  She’s also an amazing painter.  My thanks to her for taking the time to participate in this interview.

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WORK

Please, tell us about your art.

I’m a writer of fantasy, science fiction and horror. My themes often center around death or impermanence, and what culturally makes us who we are. Characters are very important to me, so I try to focus more on the players within the story, rather than the world around them. I prefer to work with characters who are or act outside of expectation—characters who have deep, dark secrets, hidden personalities, contradictory hobbies or unusual lifestyles. The goal is to never leave a reader in a position where they can guess what’s going to happen next.

What inspires you?

Living in Kyoto is obviously a huge inspiration…

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Z is for Zlatorog

Zero animals today exist that have solid gold anything, and that’s a shame. I mean, how cool would it be if you could raise a sheep with a literal golden fleece? Intellectually I know this would do nothing to actually end things like poverty and world hunger, but think of how cool it would be to have a field full of gold sheep?

But it goes without saying that you’ve got to be careful what animals and their parts you bling. Fleece and sheep are relative harmless. You wouldn’t want to be hunting the lion with the golden mane, or the elephant with the golden bazooka, and especially not the zlatorog with the golden horns.

The zlatorog is an animal from Slovenian folklore that pretty much looks like a mountain goat with huge golden horns and a sick sense of humor. It has apparently been taking lessons from the roadrunner on how to deal with poachers, as this flighty creature lures potential hunters to their deaths over the edges of cliffs. Yikes. The good news is that it never died in the legends. It was wounded once, and its blood became the first carnations, so if you’ve got a taste for gold and aren’t afraid of a horrible splattery death over the side of a cliff, you could always give this one a shot. Personally, I’m going to wait for science to give me golden guinea pigs.

encyclopedia magical creatures