Bookbinding 101

I made a thing. It’s not a perfect thing, but damnit I’m proud of it. And given the circumstances, I’m pretty sure it’s the best damn thing I could have possibly made.

I made a book.

I didn’t write the book, but I did format it. I drew all the illustrations. I sewed it. I glued it. I made the physical book itself. It sapped what sanity I had left in me at the end of semester and it took two nights of staying up until three in the morning, but I made it.

front-cover

I made it as the final project for my publishing design technologies class. I had issues with that class from the beginning. Not with the class itself, exactly, but with the lab. There seemed to be no preplanned structure to the way our labs were run. Instruction was minimal at best and at worst it was confused and flat out wrong. The professor and the TA didn’t seem to have discussed how the labs were to be taught, because the TA often seemed at a loss to explain to us how to do the lab assignments the prof gave us. Considering that we were a class of students who mostly had no idea how to work InDesign, it was frustrating to say the least when the prof gave us a lab sheet that says, “do this thing” and when we ask how to do the thing, the TA says, “Don’t worry about that thing” and then, naturally, we got points taken off. After a month of that I figured that Google was probably going to be the best instructor I could get to pass that class, and I stopped asking the TA to do the thing she was getting paid to do.

This final project was no different. We received minimal guidance on how to get the book printed and were instructed to watch Sea Lemon videos to learn how to put the book together. In fact, the only part of this that I was decently confident about was the formatting part. I’m by no means an expert on InDesign now, but I feel confident in my ability to format raw text at least from this class. Illustrator and Photo Shop remain beyond my skill level. None of that would have been that big of a deal except, like I said, this was my final project. It came at the end of semester when I also had two essays and two final exams to complete/study for. And the final project was worth 22% of my grade. So I was in full on panic-stress mode for two weeks racing my deadlines while my professors and TAs were on the sidelines telling me to calm down and not freak out. Which is a bit like being on the bomb squad trying to dismantle a nuke on a sixty second timer with the whole city standing around telling you that it’d be okay if you took a coffee break. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. And since the TA had already made me nervous about asking for any kind of help due to her insufficient knowledge, I felt completely on my own in this.

But this post is about the book, not the class, so I’m going to walk you through the step-by-step process as best I can. To be honest though, I think I’ve locked up some of these memories for my own mental health, so there may be some gaps.

We were given a raw text file for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, but it had terrible line breaks throughout the whole thing that I didn’t have time to go in and fix by myself, so I grabbed the text off the internet instead. Formatting in InDesign is an incredibly laborious process. It’s not at all like Word, so don’t complain about what your formatter charges you. It’s a pain in the ass that involves making different character styles, paragraph styles, and master pages for each different formatting element in the document. Alice is only twelve chapters long, but it took me four days just to format the raw text. Including putting in the images, doing the line edits, correcting for widows and orphans and the final proof read, I read that damn book, cover to cover, six times. That was before any printing at all had been done. (To extrapolate, the idea that ebooks require no extra work than physical books and therefore shouldn’t cost so much is wrong. It’s so wrong. Stop disseminating this idea.)

The formatting, as I said, was the easy part. After I had it formatted, I had to figure out how to print it. I ran into some problems here. The first problem was that I wanted it printed on high quality, textured cream paper. It’s just a style choice for me. I don’t like white paper because the ink contrast is too high and it hurts my eyes. I also think that it looks cheap and unprofessional, but again, that’s just me. The problem was, if I wanted that kind of paper I’d have to buy it and print it myself, because ordinary print shops don’t carry high quality textured cream paper, and they don’t let you bring in your pwn paper either. But this presented its own problem because, as I discovered the night before my very last lab in which to work on this project, my printer doesn’t print double sided. So I had to scrap that idea.

The second printing problem that I had was signatures. Signatures are packets of four to five sheets of paper representing sixteen to twenty pages when folded in half. In traditional bookbinding (ie the kind of book binding you’re probably most familiar with) signatures are sewn together to create a uniform shape for all the pages in the book. But it involves a complicated formatting arrangement of the pages that we were assured by prof and TA both that the printers would understand how to do. I was assured by prof and TA both when I asked multiple times that if I went to the printer with my regularly formatted PDF file and said, “I want this printed in signatures of five sheets each” the printer would understand and would be able to print it how I wanted it.

This was not the case. The first printer I went to had no idea what I wanted. He didn’t know what a signature was, and when I explained to him what it was, he printed the whole document in one giant signature. Imagine taking thirty-five sheets of paper and folding them all in half. It doesn’t make a nice, uniform edge, does it? Not only that, but the sheets didn’t print in the correct order, so it was a complete waste of time, and it put me in a full on freak-out, because I had to go to work that afternoon and if I couldn’t get my signatures printed that morning I wasn’t going to have time to print them ever. The TA’s advice was to print a sample sheet myself, but I didn’t know how to do that at all, and she wasn’t much help explaining it to me, so I contacted every printer within walking distance to get a price and a time quote on this project. Thankfully, DigiTech Printing, less than five minutes from my school, figured they could get it done before noon. So I hauled ass over there with my files and, I have to say, they were the nicest, most accommodating people I worked with through this whole ordeal. Their professionalism, knowledge, and willingness to work on a deadline brought me down from apoplectic panic to mild worry. They assured me that everything I wanted (aside from the high quality, textured cream paper) could be done, but there was only one, small problem: price.

Wearily I asked them how much. They said $80. I said done. They reasserted that it would cost me $80. I said I didn’t care how much it cost as long as I didn’t have to be the one to deal with it anymore. I’m not ashamed to say that I literally threw money at the problem until it went away. The important thing was that I had my signatures printed, folded and trimmed, and all I had to do now was bind the book, which I didn’t need my prof or my TA for, since I would be learning that part via YouTube videos. (Why did I spend $1000 to learn publishing design from Google and YouTube?!)

signatures

Of course I needed the materials for bookbinding. Those I had to buy from Opus, Dessew, and Michael’s which are thankfully just down the street from my school. They were unfortunately far less knowledgeable, professional and agreeable than DigiTech. Dessew seemed to be staffed by grannies who are altogether tired of your shit. With the exception of the one lady who helped me find the black canvas for my cover, everyone else I dealt with in that store treated me like a junkie asking to use the bathroom. (Though to be fair I’m pretty sure all the shopkeeps on East Hastings have to deal with more than their fair share of junkies on a regular basis.) Opus on the other hand seemed to be staffed entirely by stoners who thought it would be great to operate an art supply store until the high wore off and they realized they had no fucking idea what they were doing there. No one seemed to know where anything was in the store. I was passed off to four different employees who kept scattering like scared rats at the sight of a customer. My efforts to explain what I was looking for turned up the most useless products for my project (giant sheets of paper that no one would cut, when I only needed a couple 8″x11″s) and endless chatter about anything but the products I was looking for. My last stop was Michael’s which looked like the Grinch had ransacked it. He took the cloth-binders, paper-punchers, and ink-dabbers. He took the wax thread, the gold letters, the red ribbons. What bits of glitter he left behind in that store were barely enough for a mouse and no more. Lesson learned: don’t go to Michael’s before Christmas.

supplies

So there I had all my supplies. All I had to do was: sew the signatures, glue the signatures, trim the pages, cut the cover boards, measure the cloth cover, make the headband, position the lettering, make a text block, glue the headband to the text block, glue the text block to the end sheets, glue the end sheets to the cover and FINISHED!

Easier said than done. The sewing of the signatures actually turned out to be fairly easy, despite me doing it completely wrong the first time and having to cut and unthread the whole thing and start from the beginning. I was actually quite pleased with how the corrected version turned out.

correct-sewn-signatures

I applied two coats of bookbinding glue to the sewn spine and let it dry overnight while I worked on the cover. The cover was trickier. As with every step of this damn project, there was a problem. In this case, I ran out of time to make a dust jacket, in part because I was busy completing other assignments, and in part because the printing of the signatures took way, way more time than I anticipated it would for reasons outlined above. So I had to put the title directly on the cloth itself, and the only way I could think to do that in a professional looking way was with iron-on letters. These came in large sheets from which each individual letter had to be cut in squares. The squares then had to be placed down on the cloth and ironed on both sides, which meant that I couldn’t glue the cover boards to the cloth until after I had ironed on the letters. This posed the challenge of how to position the letters so that they would appear evenly on the final cover. I solved this in the messiest way possible: I outlined in chalk. In hindsight this was probably not the best idea. Honestly, a piece of yarn rolled in flour probably would have been neater, but I was fueled entirely by coffee and cortisol as I was working on this portion, so I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. I sketched out the position of the book boards, and where I wanted the letters to be which left only one complication: how to line up the individual squares of letters so that they would look neat and not move under the iron? My solution: make a type block out of scotch tape. I positioned each letter upside down and backwards as neatly as I could muster on a strip of tape and then taped the sucker down on the chalk line I drew for it. I could then iron the letters, front and back without worrying about them shifting out of place as I did so. The result was less than perfect, but better than expected.

cloth-binding

It took a course paint brush to scrub away most of the chalk lines. I wasn’t exactly happy with the lines that remained, but definitely too exhausted to care overly much about it. Gluing everything together also turned out to be relatively easy, starting with the text block which took a couple of extra sheets to make it cohesive, and then the end sheets, which would attach it to the finished cover. For whatever reason the edges of the pages ended up slightly uneven at this stage, so I had to cut them with a craft knife. Despite my best efforts, however, the knife kept slipping and I was left with an uneven cut. Sea Lemon recommended taking a file to the uneven edges to make them smooth which yielded… mixed results which I won’t picture here.

text-block

The final complication ended up being a few pieces of information that, if left missing, would result in at least a letter grade deduction. These were, ISBN, publisher information, and the back blurb. As already mentioned, I didn’t have time to do a dusk jacket, so I was going to print an obi (book belt) to fit around the back cover instead, except my easily confused printer couldn’t figure out what size paper I wanted, so I had to go with something much smaller and much more slapped together. In the end, the final product looked like this:

I don’t know what I got on the project. I won’t know until I get it back in January. If my final grade is anything to go by I got less than an A on it, which I’m extremely disappointed by given the amount of effort I put into this compared to the amount and quality of instruction. I ended up finishing the course with an A- however, so I don’t have much footing on which to complain. If there are any constructive criticisms on the project when I get it back, I’ll edit them in here. What I do have are the memories, and the first hand knowledge of what an all nighter looks like. For the record, it looks like this:

all-nighter

Frustrations with the Digital

As much as I like the internet and my laptop and the easy access to information at the press of a button (or more recently the tap of a screen) there are some things that I will always enjoy more in their analog form. Books are one such thing. I have a Kindle. It’s loaded with books, but I only really read it at work, where the convenience of not having to deal with pages is its biggest draw. Most touch screen command centers are also beginning to draw long, confused pauses from me, though as I get older, I find that a lot of my interactions produce long, confused pauses.

This week I added an item to my list that I never thought I’d ever add: real human interactions. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the cheerful yet automated voice of customer service knows what I’m talking about. It is infuriating and humiliating to have to yell your requests repeatedly into the phone for an automated system that neither has the capacity to recognize your frustration, nor has any clue what number you’re trying to select.

Interestingly, this exercise in hair pulling was brought on by yet another technological failure. I have been trying to be greener with my bills recently, by making them all electronic. While also saving a tree or two, this vastly reduces the amount of paper I later have to shred. This, however, also puts me at the mercy of The Machine (in previous generations known as The Man) as I had the unpleasant, Kafkaesque misfortune of discovering last Friday.

When I found my cell phone bill in my inbox, conspicuously showing me a figure several dollars higher than what I’m used to, my immediate instinct was to run a fine-toothed comb through the damn thing to find out what I was being over-charged for this time. Which was when I discovered that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not log into my account. That produced the thought of, “Oh shit, I’ve forgotten my password again,” because really, who can remember four dozen random arrangements of 15 uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, and neolithic cave drawings all of the time? So I angrilly reset my password, and yet the problem did not go away.

Time to call customer service.

Well, it was a busy day for customer service. Thirty minutes spent waiting for ‘an available agent’ after the five minute maze of dial pad commands was not what I wanted to do with my morning. So I left my number for a call back and went on with my business.

My call back came in at the appointed time, and everything was going well, (I was bopping along to the elevator music) when suddenly it stopped and I’m patched through to a line.

An empty line.

The call didn’t drop. There was no dial tone. There was nothing but a faint white noise. Evidently I had been patched through to an agent who had left his headset on his desk while going off to take a wee. I waited for five minutes before I gave up in disgust.

Next option: live chat.

I like live chat slightly less than automated phone systems, if only because chat bots are becoming way more advanced every year and my fragile optimism coupled with my paranoid cynicism is always worried that I’m going to be the one that lets an AI pass the Turing test that then ushers in the robot apocalypse. Don’t laugh, it could happen!

As it happened, Veronica, my assistant was instantly on my radar. First of all, come on, no one has been named Veronica since “Archie” comics. Secondly, she spoke (or, I guess typed) a little too robotically. There are certain casual nuances to human communication that Veronica just didn’t seem to pick up on. Or else my phone company has a script written by an emotionless tin man that their employees are never, ever allowed to deviate from. But whatever. Veronica needed to be tested.

Me: Hey, Veronica, what’s your favorite animal?

Veronica: My favorite animal? giraffe

Very clever Veronica. Your programming has allowed you to deviate off your script. Time to throw another wrench into your machinery.

Me: Giraffe isn’t an animal, Veronica.

Veronica: No? Then what is it?

Damnit, Veronica, you’re not playing the game right!

Me: Veronica, can I speak to a real human please?

Veronica: I am a real human.

Touché, Veronica. Touché.

Clearly I was outmatched. This was either a very, very clever chat bot or else a very confused and possibly offended human woman. I may never know. Not until the robot uprising begins, that is.

In the end she gave me a very complicated work around that involved making a new account with a new email address and password. And while she wasn’t able to definitively prove to me that she wasn’t a metallic imposter, she did inform me that the error I had been experiencing was because my phone company had decided to muck around with their website, and had inadvertently locked a huge number of their customers out of their accounts. I told Veronica that their web developer needed to be fired, and possibly needed to be the first fleshy human to be put to work in the mines.

Whichever.

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This seems like as good a time as any to announce that my short story, “Customer Service” has been accepted by the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis. It will appear in a future issue that I will be more than happy to pimp out once I have more information.

In the meantime, the ink continues to [slowly] flow into other projects.

There will be updates.

Sometime.

Maybe.

Back To School Week

I’ve always loved September. The change in the weather from the sizzling hot grasp of August into the breezy, slightly damp first days of autumn; shopping for school supplies, and the easy first few days of classes when teachers want to do less teaching and more rapport building to avert any potential problems for the rest of the school year. It’s also my birthday month, which I’ve always denied as being the true reason why I love September so much.

In honesty, I enjoy returning to school after summer break. Even though that now mythical two month vacation period I enjoyed as a grade school student is long gone into my nostalgic past, the prospect of returning to university after my *cough* six year hiatus is making me more than a little excited.

I finally know what direction I want to take my education in. I don’t have a clear career path, per se, but I know that if I want to drop $50,000 on a four year trial to get a piece of paper, I want to enjoy the process. Thankfully my school has a double minor option for getting a degree, so I’ll be taking Sociology and Publishing.

Love of sociology was an accidental discovery during my first year of university, before I booked it to Japan. Most of my papers argued from a sociological angle, and I found myself reading and being fascinated by more and more sociology books. I’m hoping university doesn’t kill my hobby passion under the weight of academic study. Fingers crossed.

Publishing on the other hand will give me some actually salable technical skills that sociology won’t. There are a lot of graphic design, marketing, and economics courses in the program that may be transferable to future career. And if I’m going to continue to pursue this dream of being an author, some knowledge of the actual industry might be helpful.

In the end, I have no idea where any of this will take me. I don’t like to plan too much for my future, because sticking to the plan necessitates closing and locking too many doors. I’d rather pencil in a course on the map and see where the wind takes me along the way. Besides that, Alex has made a pretty solid plan for herself and the last thing I want for us to have is plans that diverge. Completing my four year degree is my only real goal at the moment. After that, we’ll see what the options are.

Pokémon GO Outside And Play

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Less than two weeks after its initial release in Australia, Pokémon GO is an undeniable success in the mobile gaming world. The much anticipated alternate reality game has rekindled the love of Pokémon with generations of adults and children alike and caused a surprising wave of hostility and controversy for a game that is essentially part scavenger hunt and part capture the flag. But with the current news cycle flashing nothing but negativity, pessimism, and a dichotomy of ideology 24/7, the arrival of Pokémon GO is to some a much needed diversion back to a happier and more innocent time. To others it is a childish regression, and an unsafe waste of time. Wherever you stand on the subject, undoubtedly Pokémon GO is dominating your social media feeds with images of cartoon monsters, alarming news headlines, and glib memes demanding that anyone over the age of ten who plays the game grow up and get off of their lawns.

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Pokémon GO is the latest installment in the globally popular Pokémon franchise, which began in Japan in 1995. From its Red and Blue start on the Game Boy, the turn-based monster collection and fighting game exploded into a lengthy video game library, a trading card game, a wildly popular cartoon series, nineteen movies, a comic book series, and its own Monopoly board, among other popular media. There are three key components to the Pokémon entertainment empire: explore the world, collect the monsters, and compete with friends. Up until now, Pokémon fans have had to limit their experiences to the fictional world first described in the original games. But with the dawn of mobile gaming and readily available GPS technology, it was only a matter of time before The Pokémon Company brought its pocket monsters into our world.

Which is where Niantic comes in. Niantic is the developer best known for the game Ingress, from which Pokémon GO takes many of its mechanics. Partnered with Google, Niantic and The Pokémon Company worked together to create a game in which Google Maps data is used to populate the world with monsters, gyms, and PokéStops where players can view pokémon superimposed on their own neighborhood streets through their mobile phones. The core concepts of Pokémon are preserved–explore, collect, and fight–however the alternate reality quality of the game adds a novel mechanic to the mix. In order to achieve any of these goals, players must leave home and walk to find, level up, and compete with their monsters. Pokémon has essentially left the couch and forced players to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise.

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With such a popular game demanding of its players what anxious parents have wanted for years, the benefits of Pokémon GO seem indisputable. Monsters spawn in random locations, giving players only a rough 300 meter map of where any given pokémon may be. Players must thus walk long distances in the hope of catching a rare pokémon that their friends may not have yet. The new element of PokéStops–areas of interest within neighborhoods that give players needed items when swiped on screen–incentivizes players to explore and learn about places round them that might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. Lure Modules, an in-game item that can be attached to PokéStops, attract pokémon to a certain area. These areas can be seen on-screen, and draw huge crowds of people to one area where they socialize, compete, and in general share a love of the game across age, gender, race, or other social barriers that at times conspire to keep people apart. Pokémon has even reportedly helped some players fight depression and social anxiety by bringing people together in a fun and engaging way, where the normal pressures and stresses of social interaction are set aside in favor of a group expression of joy for a shared hobby.

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Unfortunately, and as expected with so many people suddenly playing the game, many negative news stories have come out about Pokémon GO as well. From reports of players discovering dead bodies, to criminals using lures to attract victims to rob, to reports of distracted users walking straight off of cliffs, questions about the game’s safety have been as numerous on the internet as those asking where players can catch that elusive Vulpix. And while the game does what it can to keep players safe, including a plea for users to be mindful of their surroundings in the loading screen, and utilizing the vibrate functions on the phone to alert players when they approach a monster in the game, to get the full experience of watching the avatar move on the real world map, players must juggle their eyes between the screen and the road. What should be common sense can sometimes be discarded as players get caught up in the excitement of experiencing their favorite game in a new media.

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Beyond the physical dangers that careless players might put themselves in, there seems to be a rather vocal, borderline obsessive retaliation by the older generations against Pokémon GO players. Sneering, dismissive and even insulting comments are flung down by the self-proclaimed mature adults who hold their own hobbies and interests above scorn. There even seems to be a subset of dissenters who would prefer that adult Pokémon GO players put down their innocent fun to engage in some decidedly more reckless and even illegal behavior. In the name of maturity, mind you.

But this hyper-sensitive insistence that adults only engage in pre-approved adult activities didn’t begin with Pokémon GO. The West has an obsession with its vision of maturity. We want to grow up fast, be done with the silliness and whimsy of childhood and jump into the world of alcohol and sex and debt as soon as we possibly can. Men must have loud cars and big guns, and women must be dolled up and sexed out; our movies, video games and books must be dark and gritty, must have enough R’s in the ratings to draw a pirate’s attention and enough curse words to make a sailor blush. Tits and explosions. It’s what separates the men from the boys. In Pokémon’s birthplace however, the opposite is true. It’s youth and innocence that is prized. Japan is littered with cartoon images, from train stations to police boxes to construction sites. Women want to be cute, rather than sexy, and men dress to look youthful and college-hip, rather than powerful and intimidating. Adult players of Pokémon GO in the West who snub their noses at their vocal detractors ask, in this vein, “What’s so good about being mature, anyway?” What indeed.

For Pokémon fans, both old and new, Pokemon GO offers a fresh avenue to explore the world we live in and the world of Pocket Monsters at the same time. It brings people together, gets gamers out of the house, and has given those of us who loved Pokémon in our youth a little bit of sunshine at a time when there seems to be nothing but dark clouds overhead.

So haters gonna hate, and PokéFans gonna throw pokéballs, regardless. We’re happy. We’re having fun. And most of us are playing safe.

Go Team Mystic.

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Debunking Myths of Living Abroad in Japan

I’ve been back in Canada for twelve weeks now, and while I’d like to say that I received a warm welcome back to the place of my birth and have easily assimilated into the maple syrup and hockey lifestyle, the reality is that it’s been more like being doused in ice water than it has been a bed of roses. My grandfather’s passing has unleashed a shitstorm within the family, as estate dealings usually do, but even I wasn’t prepared for the level of stress and toxicity I was returning to. Instead of unpacking all of that though, I want to look back a bit nostalgically on my time in Japan, and give you, reader, a list that is by no means complete of all the things I miss about my life abroad. Here are twelve reasons why living in Japan is better than living in Canada.

  1. Employment – I was a foreigner in Japan, so this may not apply to actual Japanese nationals, and I know in some cases it absolutely does not apply to my Japanese friends, but employment is so much easier to find, and a living wage is so much easier to come by in Japan than it is in Canada. Even without the university degree that is a requirement of most of the big schools I was able to find work teaching English with little difficulty and in fact, the job I ended up in had the most amazing boss, the best perks, a great student base, and near unlimited freedom to teach as I wanted. I was happy there. Alex and I were making enough money to not only live comfortably, but to have vacations and date nights and shopping sprees. Contrast that with Canada: it took me ten weeks to find any work, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed. This is with many years of experience in the field I was applying for, and equal experience in a management position. The job I’m working at now pays minimum wage, with a commission percentage on top of that. I’m working about ten hours a week. As a thirty year old who was making $25 an hour at my previous job, this has left me stunned and worried for my financial future.
  2. Transit – When I was young and stupid, I used to think that Vancouver had a world class transit system. Holy shit was I wrong. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the trains in Japan, and how they are accurate to the minute, and broadcast any delays in real time to the stations they will be arriving at. Commuters always know exactly when their train will arrive, and if there is a delay they can request a notice from the station master to excuse their tardiness at work or school or wherever they have to be. Subway stations in Kyoto even let you know where your train is in relation to your station, so you know how long your wait will be. Buses are the same. Bus stops in Kyoto electronically track where the buses are and how long they will take to get to your pick up. Missed your bus? No problem. Buses run on a 15 minute cycle, with the popular routes sending buses every five minutes. And if you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to take a bus, taxis operate everywhere. MK in particular is convenient for its shuttle service and private bus route that can take travelers to and from airports hassle free. Transit in Vancouver on the other hand is a nightmare. By all accounts it has been steadily degrading in the time that I’ve been gone, but our light rail system, the SkyTrain breaks down on the regular, often stranding commuters in between stations and forcing them to walk the tracks back to civilization. While TransLink continues with plans to expand the SkyTrain lines to other parts of British Columbia (parts with few actual potential riders, and more potential for developers to draw people in) the bus system is woefully inadequate for the demand. Amid a multi-million dollar “upgrade” to train stations, construction is causing delays and outright cancellations of buses throughout the day. These cancellations come last minute and at times, hours after the bus in question was due to arrive, leaving commuters with little or no opportunity to make alternate arrangements. This is in addition to slashing the frequency of buses from every 15 minutes, to every 30. Missing a bus in Vancouver means being ridiculously late for your appointments. And no, TransLink doesn’t issue notices to stranded riders that they may present to their employers as an explanation.
  3.  Rental Offices – There’s this really cool service in Japan that is literally everywhere you go: rental offices. Do you need new accommodations? Something closer to your new job, or just need a change of scenery? Do you know what you’re looking for down to the number and size of windows? Just walk on down to the nearest rental office (you can find them by the brochures they leave literally everywhere) and talk to an agent. At no cost to you they will find you the right rental property for your needs, your budget and your location. 1LDK? 2LDK? They’ll be able to match you with the perfect house, hassle free. In Vancouver? Shit on you, you’re on your own. Good luck. Most of the rental adds you’ll find that are halfway to affordable are a new version of the Nigerian Prince scam.
  4. Housing – It’s a myth that the housing situation in Japan is deplorable. Yes, it’s a small country. Yes, most of the country is functionally unusable due to the amount of mountainous regions. Yes, people live close together but you know what? The Japanese make it work. And they keep it affordable. Now, keep in mind that I’m still talking about Kyoto here. Tokyo is its own little bubble that I’m not going to get into. Our first apartment was nothing to write home about, but at 50,000 yen a month (roughly $500) it was definitely affordable for one full-time student and one part-time teacher, especially considering that the utilities were all included. But still, we wanted something better, something with more space and with more comfort, as we were suddenly planning on staying for more than a year. With the help of a rental office we were able to find a gorgeous two story townhouse, 2LK (two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen). The closet space alone was as much as all the floor space in our first apartment. It was 20 minutes convenient to work, at the base of a mountain in a quiet neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants, nature and temples within walking distance. And we paid 80,000 yen a month for it. “NJ!” I hear you cry because, as we’ve already established reader, you and I are telepathically linked. “I’ve heard all about this thing called ‘key money.’ Isn’t that a huge problem in Japan?” Ah yes, key money. A gratuity to the landlord for the honor of renting the property. It can be pretty steep. Ours was two months rent, on top of the deposit and the first month’s rent but our landlord was super nice, and knocked 50,000 yen off of the total, so in the end, with some help from a friend, we were able to pay the initial expense, which we recouped in the end when our landlord took most of our old stuff off of us and saved us a hauling fee to remove it. Looking back, I miss that place more than I have words for. Housing in Vancouver is dreadful at the moment. Foreign investors are causing real estate prices to soar. One bedroom basement suites are going for $1100 a month minimum. Renters are being forced out of their homes by owners wanting to sell while the market is hot. To say that housing is in crisis in Vancouver is to be seriously understating the situation. At the moment I’m living rent free in my grandfather’s old house, but it too is being sold and without any student financial aid to back me until September, where I’m going to live over the next year is worryingly uncertain.
  5. Food – To be honest, in Kyoto, the food isn’t as great as it is in many other parts of the country. It’s more about the presentation of the food than the actual flavor and how much it can fill you up. It’s not what I generally like in dining, but I took what I could from it. Food in Kyoto is also very seasonal. You can’t buy foods year round and many foods are entirely unavailable outside of expensive specialty shops. However, there are many different shopping options available in Japan, especially for food items. In our neighborhood there were no less than four grocery stores to choose from and at varying price ranges. We were able to find the things we needed, and cook fancy meals at home on a budget, and even had enough to eat out a couple nights out of the month. In Vancouver, however, food costs have risen to the point that even the lowest cost grocery store has pricing comparable to mid-level grocers. I’m spending on average $200 a month to feed three people with just the basics. Every time I go shopping I cringe at the check-out counter.
  6. Leisure – There is always something to do in Japan. Especially for someone like me who loves nature and culture and history, Kyoto was an ideal place to live. Leisure activities are very low cost and easily accessible. For the weekend we could go out and enjoy the city for less than $50. Here in Vancouver, not only is everything ridiculously far to get to, it’s expensive, seating is limited and options themselves are limited. In the suburbs, there’s next to nothing to do other than go to the mall and look at all the things we can’t afford to buy.
  7. Data/Bandwidth – One of the things I miss the most about living in Japan is my unlimited data plan on my cellphone and the lack of bandwidth caps on my internet service. I never even had to think about it. The internet was just always there at my finger tips, and we only paid 6,000 yen a month for internet and 9,500 a month for two cell phone plans. Not here. We’re paying $75 for an internet service that barely covers three average net users and $192 a month per phone for 2.5GB of cell phone data. I feel like I’m being robbed.
  8. Immigration – It doesn’t matter what country you’re trying to enter, immigration is never a fun experience. The lengths one has to go to to prove that they are employable and financially self-sufficient and in general decent human beings is ridiculous, but Japan actually has one of the easier immigration systems. They love paperwork, and the more supporting documentation you can show them the better your chances are at being admitted into the country. They also have multiple means of entry, depending on what your primary purpose for visiting Japan is. Renewing and even changing your visa is an uncomplicated process that can be done within the country. In Canada, all immigration procedures must be done at a port of entry, even if you’re already here. Getting Alex her student visa was a headache enough due to the lack of information and transparency from the university who should be making this as easy as possible to attract foreign students. Actually getting her permanent residence is a minimum two year process if it’s started in Canada. That can be brought down to 18 months, if it is started in America. It is also a one time only thing. If she is denied, we cannot reapply. And they don’t give you any help with it, either. Figure it out yourself and hope to god you didn’t forget any of the paperwork.
  9. Convenience – Oh my god, is Japan ever a convenient place to live. I don’t know how true this holds to super rural areas, but in Kyoto I had everything I needed for daily life within a 10 minute walking radius of my house. Banks, post office, buses, trains, grocers, drug stores, art store. Everything. I would walk to most places I wanted to go, and transit took me everywhere else. But Canada being such a very large country, everything here is very spread apart. Our nearest convenience store is an hour walk away. The mall is a 45 minute walk. The bus stop is relatively close, but half the time the bus doesn’t come or else it is late. The train station is at the mall. There is nothing at all within 10 minutes of me but the school and a lake and a whole lot of houses.
  10. Postage – It cost me 82 yen (about 82 cents) to send a postcard from Japan to Canada. It costs $1.30 to send a postcard from Canada to Canada.
  11. Recycle Shops – Because of how the corporate world in Japan is set up, often times families have to pack up and move when a company sends one of its employees arbitrarily to a different branch, sometimes on the other end of the country, or even abroad. Moving costs can quickly add up, and to avoid such costs, many families unload their non-essential items at recycle shops. Some of these shops will buy used items, others charge a fee for pick up. But all items are thoroughly cleaned and if necessary, repaired and then resold at a discount. Many items sold at recycle shops are antiques that sell for pocket change. We got almost all of our furniture at recycle shops in Japan. All of it clean and comfortable and very much usable. These things just don’t exist in Canada, making everything so much more expensive bought new.
  12. Health Insurance – I paid a lot for Japan’s national health insurance. About $130 a month. This is compared to the $32 a month I paid in Canada before I left. However, Japanese health insurance covers everything: doctors visits, emergency room care, dental and prescriptions. Canadian basic government coverage only covers doctor and emergency room services. Dental and pharmaceutical is paid through employers, if you’re so lucky. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to a $0 premium when I returned as a citizen with no income. Unfortunately, since I hadn’t been living in Canada for the last 12 months, I am automatically enrolled in the highest income premium for an entire year, with no eligibility for premium assistance until then. See point #1, 4, 5 and 7 for why this is a bit of a problem for me.

In all, I’m missing my life in Japan a great deal. I wasn’t ready to leave when we did, but we didn’t have a choice. Life was moving forward and we had to move forward with it. I’m frustrated with the way things are in my country right now, especially seeing how another country seems to have very workable solutions for these little frustrations. And don’t get me wrong, there were things I disliked about living in Japan too, while I was there. But now that I’m home, I find myself struggling to understand how life and living in the country of my birth can be so fundamentally more difficult than it had been in a country with a completely different language and culture.

Looking on the bright side, however, we have Trudeau where they have Abe, so I suppose Canada scores a point in that regard.

Tangent Reviews: Clockwork Phoenix 5

Clockwork Phoenix 5 is an eclectic collection of speculative fiction stories from a diverse cast of authors. The stories selected reflect the diversity of the authors and while some of them failed to hit the mark with me, they all have something unique to offer the reader.

“The Wind at His Back” by Jason Kimble
“The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones
“The Perfect Happy Family” by Patricia Russo
“The Mirror-City” by Mary Brennan
“Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Squeeze” by Rob Cameron
“A Guide to Birds by Song (After Death)” by A. C. Wise
“The Sorcerer of Etah” by Gray Rinehart
“The Prime Importance of a Happy Number” by Sam Fleming
“Social Visiting” by Sunil Patel
“The Book of May” by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
“The Tiger’s Silent Roar” by Holly Heisey
“Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff
“The Trinitite Golem” by Sonya Taaffe
“Two Bright Venuses” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“By Thread of Night and Starlight Needle” by Shveta Thakrar
“The Games We Play” by Cassandra Khaw
“The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
“Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson
“The Souls of Horses” by Beth Cato

I have five favorites in this anthology. First, Patricia Russo’s “The Perfect Happy Family” for its charming characters and its minimalist, surrealist apocalyptic setting. “Squeeze” by Rob Cameron is a wonderful benign ghost story, and the closest to a classical narrative in this anthology. Rich Larson’s “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” is a fantastic alien protagonist story that loops in a way that makes me smile. I appreciated Sonya Taaffe’s “The Trinitite Golem” for the way it slips fluidly between reality and myth and fantasy. Finally, “The Sorcerer of Etah” I enjoyed for its arctic setting and the interesting way it presented problems for the main character.

My full review can be found at Tangent Online. Clockwork Phoenix 5 can be purchased on Amazon.

On Fighting

I have the flu. It’s not the point of this post, but in case what follows is rambling, incoherent and full of elementary typos, I want to at least give myself a little bit of a safety net of allowance.

The truth is I’m not in a good head space right now, and it’s got little to do with the virus. In fact, the flu might be keeping me from slipping into an even darker space right now. As tough as it is, in reality one can only focus on one major upheaval at a time and the flu is currently closer to me.

What I really want to talk about, is my grandfather. He’s dying. There’s no other way to spin it. He was admitted to hospital last week with a complicated pneumonia infection and a dangerously low weight. My sister and my aunt have been keeping me informed and over the past couple days it has been a roller coaster of prognoses, everything from an immediate need to say my good-byes to his expected recovery. I’ve been sleeping with my phone under my pillow, waiting for that call that’s going to come, telling me that my grandfather has passed while I’m on the other side of the world. You tell me which is harder: being there when a loved one passes or not being there, because right now I really don’t know.

My grandfather has survived over a dozen heart attacks, at least five of which should have put him down. He was at 13% of his cardiac function when they put a pacemaker in him. He’s been cut open more times than I like to think about and over the past two years has swatted away at three different cancers. Last year his pacemaker gave him a jolt that sent him down the stairs. He broke two ribs and fractured a vertebrata and still insisted over this last Christmas on moving furniture around for the comfort of guests who were staying, and not for lack of the strong, willing hands of grandchildren either. My grandfather is particular about things. Once he puts his mind to a thing, once he has a plan, he sees it through, come hell or high water.

“We Magases are stubborn,” he often says. I believe him.

Yesterday the topic was broached between the doctors and the rest of the family that it might be time to let Grandpa go. “He is being maintained, but only maintained,” it was explained to me. “He’s in a lot of pain, and it’s selfish of us to keep him going if he doesn’t want to.”

They said they would talk to Grandpa about how he wanted to go. I understand their reasoning, and while I have nothing against end of life care, and think that it should, in this case as in all cases, be an individual’s own right to choose what they do with their body, nonetheless everything in me rebells at this suggestion. Not only because he is my grandfather, my only remaining grandparent, and a bedrock supporter of my perhaps less than responsible decision to live abroad for five years; not only because he’s got a heart full of selfless kindness that had him rooting through the storage room for anything of use he could donate to the Syrian refugees starting over in Canada; but because it goes against everything he’s told me a Magas is: strong, stubborn, tenacious. I don’t want to see him giving up on life like that. This opinion doesn’t come from a spiritual or a religious place in me, but rather a philosophical one: you have an eternity to be dead, but only a few short years to be alive. Maybe my view will change as I get older, but I hope not.

Today I received a message from my aunt. The doctors asked Grandpa what his goals are going forward and he told them that he wants to get better. I have never been more proud of anyone in my family. To face pain and death with a fighting spirit and a will to live–I hope I can show half his courage before the obstacles that lay ahead of me in life.

Things still aren’t certain for my grandfather. He’s stable at the moment and the doctors have tentatively reduced some medications to increase others. The lung cancer is making it difficult for him to clear the pneumonia from his lungs and his pacemaker is struggling to keep his heart ticking. I know this is a thousand times more difficult for Grandpa than it is for the rest of us, but if there’s even the slightest hope that I might see him in person again after my move back next month, I want it to be clung to with all the stubbornness behind our name.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

Tangent’s 2015 Recommended Reading

If you’ve taken a casual look at my blog recently you might get the impression that I do a bit of reviewing. Actually, I do a lot of reviewing, though lately not so much on the books I’ve been reading for pleasure. Frantically writing my own fiction has eaten up a large chunk of my time, on top of the reviews I do for Tangent Online.

Tangent is a fanzine started back in 1993 that reviews the works from the short story to novella pro-paying market. Occasionally they’ll review novels, and there are articles and other interesting stuff out there for the SFF minded.

At the end of every year a list is compiled of what the review team felt were the best of the best to be published that year. Stories we like are given a zero to three star ranking, depending on whether they’re just ‘good’ or mind-blowingly life changing. Keep in mind that these are already stories that have been accepted into professional publications, so these are double-vetted stories of pure awesomeness.

To see the 2015 list, visit Tangent Online here. You have to scroll down some, past the explanation of the list (summarized above) and some stuff about Sad Puppies that I’m not going to get into here.

Anyway, if you’re looking for some spectacular short science fiction, fantasy, or horror reads and aren’t sure where to start, give this list a look. I’ve picked quite a few choice stories myself.

The Siege of Fushimi Castle and Kyoto’s Chitenjo Temples

Living on a planet that is roughly 4.5 billion years old and being the descendants of a species that has existed for around two hundred thousand of those years, it is an inevitability that every moment of our lives is spent treading over the spot where someone has died. It’s such an ubiquitous concept that we rarely give it any thought at all, especially those of us who live in wealthy, stable countries where our only encounters with the memorial of death are via the grave markers of family or friends.

But Japan is a little different. In addition to being a very old nation, by luck and happenstance much of its tangible cultural history has been preserved into the present day. Kyoto especially escaped the destruction of her historical monuments during the second World War and as a result, structures dating back to the twelfth century are still standing and available to be visited and entered by the general public. Of course, to keep these castles and temples from falling to the elements, private and publicly funded restoration efforts are an annual endeavor. Japan, however, has a knack for reclamation and re-purposing; even when a castle like Fushimi is brought to the ground time and again, parts of its original architecture live on in other buildings.  Oftentimes, this reclaimed wood paints the history of the country’s darker years. Warring years. Years of struggle, betrayal, conquest, and death. In Kyoto, four centuries-old temples bear the scars of this history in bloodstains plainly visible on the ceilings. They are the inheritors of the floorboards of the doomed Fushimi Castle, and in the rust-red prints of feet, hands and faces tell the tale of the samurai who died when the castle fell in 1600.

The story of Fushimi Castle, one of the final battles of Japan’s Warring States period, brings together the lives and ambitions of some of the most famous figures in Japanese history. Extra Credits has put together a fantastic six part series on the notable figures, their campaigns and their losses which you should absolutely watch when you’ve got the time.

Even though Fushimi Castle eventually fell and has never been successfully usefully reconstructed, parts of it remain in the temples of Yogen-in, Shoden-ji, Hosen-in and Genko-an, among others. These temples are the holders of chitenjo–blood ceilings. After Fushimi Castle’s fall, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered any usable building materials to be salvaged from the ruins and stored for re-purposing in temples across Kyoto. This way the spirits of those who died in violence could be prayed for and put at rest in some of the most tranquil, scenic spots in all of the city.

Here, while drinking tea in the presence of a seven hundred year-old pine tree, or considering the nature of enlightenment and ignorance via the metaphor of shape, one is chillingly reminded by a simple look up that people have died on those boards.

My full article on each of these four temples can be found on Taiken Japan. The temples predate Fushimi Castle and have some stunning features in their own rights. Go take a look if you’re curious, or see the picture galleries below for examples of these beautiful hidden gems of the old capital.

Genko-an

Shoden-ji

Hosen-in