Saturday, August 29, 2009

Life Lessons

Note: I wrote this blog on Saturday, but didn't publish it till today.

I read much concerning the achievements of Ted Kennedy from the day he died to now, which I write as his funeral motorcade winds its way to Arlington National Cemetery. Besides his legislative accomplishments, many of the articles pointed out his personal ones, often in contrast to his personal failings. He could have given up after the Chappaquiddick incident. Indeed, a lesser man would have wallowed in his grief at being, at least, partly responsible for a young woman's death, if for no other reason than that he drove the car that claimed her life. He could have chosen to deflect blame. He could have decided that his actions in not reporting the accident until the next day would define him for the rest of his life. Perhaps, in a way, they did. That is something that only Teddy would know. But whether it was the memory of his brothers or the memory of Mary Jo Kopechne, something drove him to serve for so long, and with such distinction, in the U.S. Senate.

Searching reactions from others concerning his death, one notices two things: 1.) all of the positive comments are by people who knew him, or had direct contact with him at some point in their lives, 2.) all of the derogatory comments are by people who didn't know him, who lambast him for Chappaquiddick and his behavior before he met and married his second wife--before she saved him, as he put it. And, out of those positive comments (for negative comments by strangers are as useful to me as criticisms of a movie by a random audience member), I can understand why the man was so beloved.

He truly cared about people.

He cared about his constituents. He cared about his colleagues. He cared about his friends. He cared about his adversaries. And, most of all, he cared about his family.

As for his success, that can be explained, too. He became this century's greatest Senator (if greatness is to be decided by the quality of bills that one helps to pass and/or author) through hard work. Hard work and a great staff. It wasn't due to talent, though he had talent. It wasn't due to the strength of his arguments, though he made them as strong as he could. Hard work, combined with his love of people, respect of people, translated into the passage of major bills. The Civil Rights Act. The Immigration and Nationality Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act. And many, many more.

But it's his life that we can learn the most from. Here was a man who had one brother die in combat and two more assassinated, whose nephew died with his wife and her sister in a plane crash while heading to his cousin's wedding, and another who died in a skiing accident. A man who, at the end of his life, battled brain cancer for fourteen months before succumbing to it. And yet, during all that time, he served the lowest, served with the highest, and befriended many, both low and high. If there are lessons to be learned from Ted Kennedy's life, they are these:

1.) Don't let tragedies define you, whether they are personal tragedies or national ones.
2.) If you don't have the talent of others, work harder than they do, and you'll succeed.
3.) You can compromise the details, but don't compromise your convictions.
4.) You can disagree with someone and still be friends with them.
5.) A sense of humor always helps.
6.) Give to those who have less than you do. Help those who need it more than you do.

Rest in peace, Teddy. A nation mourns your passing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Update on the Novel 2

Since I wrote so much for my mid-week blog, today I thought I'd write a quick update on my novel.

As I approach the climax, work has been slow, especially since I still haven't figured out how to write in a plausible ending, based on the personalities and behaviors of my characters, nor what that ending should be. The past few days, I have written two or three pages worth of material, only to have to delete most of that progress by the time my writing session is over, leaving me with a few paragraphs, at most, by bedtime. I believe Oscar Wilde said it best when he described writing in this manner:

"I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

The writing process is slow and can occur in fits and starts. One's progress in the morning can be negated by one's progress at night. Besides these observations, this quote points out how meticulous one has to be when revising. But one also needs a forum in which to try out new things and not have to worry about tidying up the wording or the grammar to perfection--a place where one is allowed to fail easily is also a place that allows one to succeed easily.

This blog isn't such a place, since I am writing partly for me and partly for my audience. Since my goal here is to communicate to my readers--which lies at the core of all literature--I can't write sloppy grammatical sentences or let spelling errors slip by, whereas when I write in my diary, only I have to be able to read and understand what I write. Even there, if I write terrible sentences or spell words strangely, then I will lose the meaning of what I wrote over time, as I rely more and more on the words to fill in the gaps of my memory, rather than the other way around. Still, this blog is a place where I can iron out rough edges, without having to make them smooth as glass.

As for my novel, I hope to finish my current revision in two months, if not sooner. I have gotten to the point where I'm ready to move on to short stories and poetry, instead of having this novel hog all of my writing time during the week.

Until next time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Healthcare

When I created this blog, it was never with the intention to write anything political, impossible though that might be, since the original Latin word that "politics" comes from means "people" (you Latin majors out there can correct me if I'm wrong). But with all the vitriol I've heard about health care reform in this country--all the lies, the shouting, the pettiness, the fear--I've decided to write a blog mid-week to address this issue, not so much as to trumpet my opinion to you, but to share with you my observations about this debate, and what it reveals about Americans today.

First of all, every poll I've seen shows that Americans support health care reform. As this Time article points out, it's the details that people worry about. Those details are what the health care debate should be focused on, not these shouting matches at Town Hall meetings. And the details that people worry about should be ones in the actual bills, or ones that they think should be in the bills. Not "death boards." Actually, don't insurers already use them, when they decide not to cover a life saving procedure because it's too expensive?

Another problem I have is with people who label the public option in health care reform "socialism," and therefore, of course, automatically disqualify it as something that the U.S. should do. First of all, the word "society" is in "socialism," which implies people working together, much like "commune" or "community" is buried in the word "communism." Plus, socialism is an economic system, like capitalism. Like capitalism, it has its excesses, but it doesn't equal totalitarianism, which is a political system, and which would be anathema to the United States.

Of course, that's not their point. Their point is that public health care, health care for all, is somehow something the U.S. government should not be involved in (even though they already are--Medicare and Medicaid, anyone?). It should be left to private businesses. And that's the problem. The mindset among some people is that health care is not a right. Or rather, health insurance is not a right, because, hey, you can make money off of it, so leave it to the free market. Who cares if millions are uninsured? Who cares if we spend much more money on health care than other countries, and yet rank lower than thirty-six of them for quality of care? On the other hand, if you consider health care to be a right of every citizen (after all, healthy citizens are productive citizens, so it benefits the government to make sure they can remain healthy), then why shouldn't the government make sure that everyone is covered? I think there should be a public option to go with private insurers. Private insurers claim a national health insurance system will drive them out of business. That's interesting, because in Japan, national health insurance and private insurance plans exist side-by-side. So basically, if private insurers can't survive with a public option, they must be pretty incompetent.

One other thing that bothers me about this health care debate is people who are in it for themselves. They don't want to have to pay slightly more for health care costs, even if it's for the good of all. I can understand this from people who are squeezed for cash, or who live on a fixed income, but if you can afford to pay a little more, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you want to help others have what you have? Is it because they may not be able to pay, so it looks like they're getting a free ride? We wouldn't be having this argument if it was about children...oh wait. Every year in my town we have a group of people who complain about tax increases, and in years when the budget doesn't pass the first time, the school budgets get cut, as well as other services. Seems children aren't important, either.

I guess my big problem doesn't have to do with the yelling that's going on in Town Hall meetings, or citizens basing their opinions on lies concocted by people who should know better. My big problem is with a culture that believes that everyone should fend for themselves, instead of doing everything possible to lift all Americans together. We may have individual freedoms, but we are connected as a society, and as a society, we have obligations to each other. We say we are one nation when pledging allegiance to the flag, but do we actually believe it? We should be doing what is best for all, for in the end, it benefits us individually, as well. In the Declaration of Independence, it declares we have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," among others. Is it so much of a stretch, then, to believe that the quality of life is just as important as the length, than we not only have the right to live, but to live well?

Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, invented such useful items such as bifocals and the Franklin stove, yet he never patented his creations. His reason? He wrote, "That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously" (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin). So should we help each other, freely and generously.

Note: The Preamble to the Constitution mentions "promoting the common welfare" as a reason for "We the People" establishing our Constitution. Makes it sound like health care is a right, doesn't it?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Travel Bug

Bullet train reflected in a building, Nagoya, Japan

I first traveled abroad when I was in eighth grade. That was to Bermuda, to do research at the Bermuda Biological Station with twenty-seven classmates, all of whom had to submit to a written and oral interview before being accepted into the program. We stayed there for about a week (and yes, that meant we got to miss a week's worth of school): doing research, exploring the island, and having fun. I can't say that the experience changed my life in any significant way. I had a crush on one of the girls who went, met one of my other female friends for the first time on the trip (on whom I would develop a crush in high school), and was made fun of for wearing my socks higher than ankle-length.

My first meaningful trip overseas, the first trip that gave me the travel bug, was to France, which occurred when I was a junior in high school. That was a ten-day trip with about fifteen classmates (and their respective French counterparts), with three of those days spent in Paris. The other six days were spent with our host families in the south of France. The reason I got to go on this trip was because 1.) I happened to be taking French in high school when the teachers there decided to start an exchange program with students from France, and 2.) I had hosted a French girl the year before (my sister was in college, so we had a room for a female--plus, I was a young teenage boy!). Unfortunately, my French skills at the time were shit, and they're worse, now (though I've kept all of my notebooks and taped exercises, so some day, I hope to not only relearn what little fluency I had, but to surpass it). Thank goodness my host family spoke good English, especially since their Provencal accent made their French sound Italian!

The year after I went, the teachers decided to change the rules so that girls could only host girls and boys could only host boys, but the year I went, and the year I hosted a student, you could choose your preference. So, I ended up staying at a girl's house. Those of you who have seen French movies, or have fantasies about staying at a French girl's house, here's the reality; she had a much older married brother (whom we visited), two younger brothers living at home, and a younger sister (who stayed with one of her uncles while I was there). I stayed in the bedroom that belonged to the older of the two brothers still living at home (who was either slightly older or slightly younger than my host). That was it. No late-night trysts, no menage-a-trois, no running away and getting secretly married, nothing. Well, there was that one time I accidentally saw....but it's France. They have topless beaches there.

In Europe, the two most beautiful things to take pictures of are fountains and cathedrals, so my photos of that trip tend to have many fountains and cathedrals in them. And I just discovered that both the girl who stayed at my house and the girl at whose house I stayed are on Facebook (they were different, because the girl who came over here was one of triplets, so the mother could only host one of her children's hosts). I'm sure they can speak English even better now than when I knew them, in addition to ten other languages, but I'd like to get my French up to snuff before I attempt to contact either of them. I'm sure they would remember me, but I don't know if they'd "friend" me. We'll see.

A freshman year marching band trip in college followed the trip to France. I like to call that trip the whirlwind tour. We visited many countries in a short span of time, spending the most time in France (several days), a night in Switzerland, and a night in Germany (before we flew back home). We also traveled to Monaco (where our main performance was, to celebrate the 700th Anniversary of the Grimaldi Dynasty) and Italy (where we gave a parade in Genoa). Squished in between performance times (which included a parade in Cannes) were a day in Paris (where I got to go inside Notre Dame Cathedral--something I had missed doing the last time I was there, due to our two-hour flight delay and crammed itinerary), some free time in the south of France (mainly Grasse), an hour or two sightseeing in Monaco, two hours in Milan, two hours in Lucerne (Switzerland), and the aforementioned night in Germany, which I spent sleeping. Oh, and even though I found out from my previous experience in France that all French food is delicious--except for pizza (sour dough and skimpy toppings)--one of my dinners in France consisted

My last two jaunts abroad were my most memorable, involved my longest stays outside the U.S., and had (and still have) the greatest impact on me, my writing, and my view of the world. The first of these trips occurred when I studied abroad in London, which is coming up on its tenth anniversary. Four years after my first trip to Europe (and two years after the band trip), I went back, now a junior in college. And while I did visit France again, the country I chose to study abroad in was England. It made sense, being that I was an English major and wouldn't have to take a language class to study there (unlike in France, and at the time, I was petrified of having to speak in a foreign language). I spent three months there, housed with other JMUers (we had our own place--not a biological station, a host family's home, or a hotel). The second trip occurred when I went to work and live in Japan for three years, which I briefly mentioned in my very first blog entry on this site.

Funny how my two most memorable trips overseas would have been my last as a student and my first as an adult. When I came back from London, I had to readjust to college life in the U.S. When I came back from Japan, I had to readjust to life in the U.S. One difference is while I more or less operated in a bubble in London (though I got to do all of the touristy things that tourists do in London, including seeing the changing of the guard), I got to experience more of the local culture while in Japan, and since some of its traditions and culture clash with some of America's traditions and culture, I sometimes had to ask very serious questions about myself in order to decide whether or not I believed in doing something a certain way because I was American, or because I believed it to be correct. Of course, most of the cultural differences did not involved such soul-searching, because both Japanese and American takes on it were equally valid. In other cases, the Japanese example was clearly superior (for example, they have a multitude of festivals in summertime that put our Fourth of July celebrations to shame, and we could learn much from their service-oriented society).

In both of those trips, I also felt that I grew as a person. My friends commented on that fact after the London trip; I noticed it in the middle of my Japanese trip. Sometime during that latter trip, I passed into adulthood. It may be partly responsible for why my late twenties were so much better than my early twenties, even if one includes my semester abroad (I turned 21 the day after I returned from the London trip).

So, what do all of these trips have in common? Besides increasing my awareness of the world around me, and the people in it, I also wrote diary entries about each trip. For Bermuda, we had to keep a daily diary. For the others, I wanted to keep a diary. So, as responsible as these trips are for making me grow as a person, they are particularly responsible for my growth as a writer, particularly the London trip.

Those accounts, which I read through recently (before I started this blog), are unique for several reasons, not the least of which is seeing how I viewed myself and others back then, and how certain aspects of my character are highlighted, not always to my benefit. From a writing standpoint, I wrote an entry for every day that I was there, often writing out notes in shorthand on our calendar of events (which listed times for classes and outings) on what had happened on that day, since I didn't have enough time while there to keep up with my diary entries. I ended up writing the majority of the entries during the summer, while my mom yelled at me about getting a summer job.

The London entries are flawed grammatically and stylistically (as most diary entries are) and suffer from some factual inaccuracies in my attempts to include everything of note (including things that happened to other people, based upon their memories), but I am still convinced that greatness is contained in there, hidden among the rubble. Also, the fact that I committed most of my summer to completing those entries (not including my written opinion of everyone who went on the trip, finished on December 31st of that year, the day before the new millenium) helped with my work ethic, particularly since there were days when I was so sick of writing that I wanted to stop, but didn't. Oh sure, I might have had a day where little writing got done, or days when I wrote nothing, but eventually, I sat back down and continued writing about my experiences, based on my notes, my photos (I went through 24 rolls of 24 exposure film), and my memories.

In a way, my London entries are the most complete of all of my diary entries. Not surprisingly, they also include the most extemporaneous material. When I was writing my entries while in Japan, I learned my lesson from London and only wrote an entry when something happened. Of course, there was no way I could have documented every day of a three-year trip, even if I had tried. That's what makes my London entries unique, and if my Japanese entries are more polished and more succint in revealing my experiences in a foreign land than their brethren, my London entries lay claim to being my first masterpiece, as they contain the first stirrings of the great author that I hope to become.

Friday, August 7, 2009

How to Receive (and Give) Criticism

I'm not good at taking criticism, though I'm better at it than I used to be. The strange thing is, recently I've become angrier when someone criticizes something I really love (like a movie) versus something I've written. With something I've written, I usually can tell if there's truth to the criticism or not, but as to my feelings about a movie, or a book I've read, I seem to take much more offense when someone bashes something I love, or loves something I hate. Perhaps I'm more insecure when it comes to my opinions of the works of others than to my own works.

For example, recently I got into an argument (online) with one of my friends over the movie Up. I was shocked that she didn't like it. She said she thought it was too slow. So, thinking maybe her ADD had something to do with her assessment of the movie, I told her that if she wanted to see a really slow movie, she should see The Thin Red Line or something by the late Anthony Minghella. I thought, at the time, that I had "found the explanation" for why she didn't like the movie; instead, I had been insensitive to her opinion, and her diagnosis, as she likes both Terrence Malick (who directed The Thin Red Line) and two of Anthony Minghella's movies (The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, movies I found to be much slower-moving than Up). Being that there are many classic novels that I don't particularly care for, I should have been okay with her opinion, even if I didn't agree with it, and while I am now fine (if still puzzled) by the fact that she didn't like it, that was not the case when we began our argument.

Are there absolutes in the world of art? I have been wondering about that recently, especially since Roger Ebert has written some blogs within the past month dealing with opinions about how good or bad a movie is (see July 5th's and 10th's entries) . Though liking a movie (or book) and recognizing it as a great movie (or book) are two separate things, can one not like a work of art and still consider it "great?" For art is (or should be) an emotional experience, and yet the only absolutes in art are the unemotional "facts" of its composition. For a movie, they include acting, directing, cinematography, dialogue, and storytelling, among other things. For Up, it would involve animation, as well. And yet you and I could agree on all of these basic factors and still have wildly different opinions of the movie in question, because culture, upbringing, and our unique personalities are what make us respond positively to some movies but not to others, even after we have trained ourselves to recognize great dialogue or great acting in a movie (opinions of which also can differ wildly). After all, if one could guarantee that all critics would say the same things about the same movies, or even like all of the same movies, all but one movie critic would be out of a job.

To test this theory of appreciation versus admiration, let's take a recognizable masterpiece: The Godfather. Suppose I found someone who didn't like The Godfather, and not because it portrays Italian-Americans as gangsters, nor because it's not his or her "type" of movie. Would that person still recognize its greatness? Maybe the way to tell if a work of art is great is whether or not you can successfully argue that it's not great. Mark Twain attempted to do just that (in the realm of literature) when he chastised James Fenimore Cooper's novels as being unrealistic by listing his "literary offenses." And yet, there are other factors within Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales that make them classics, and an important part of American literature.

To return to my original topic: while I'm not sure how I can become less offended by opinions that strongly clash with my own, especially among people with whom I share so many similar opinions (maybe I just have to accept that two people seeing the same movie see two different movies, and leave it at that), I can tell you why I react better to criticism of my own work. First off, when I open myself to criticism, I either have a strong idea of what I want the work to accomplish, or I have no idea what I want the work to accomplish. The former situation allows me to discard criticism that will not help the piece achieve the goal that I have in mind for it; the other leaves me open to any criticism that would make the work better, or give it clarity. But, if you are going to criticize something that someone else made, wrote, painted, or otherwise created, there are certain rules you should follow. Below are my rules for critiquing. And while my below comments refer to literary criticism (specifically novels), the rules can be applied to criticism in general, and to critical debates:

1.) Don't attack the other person directly.

In other words, don't do what too many "interviewers" do on shows that have a political or personal agenda: attack the other person's credibility. You are not engaging in character suicide; you are trying to help the work be the best it can be. Also, don't try to figure out the author's motives in including a passage (or leaving one out). Your only question should be: how can this be made better?

2.) Be brutal, but fair.

It's best if you don't know the person whose work you are criticizing (a friend of a friend, for example). The reason for this is because friends will often let their feelings get in the way of being brutally honest, which is why one should only be open to criticism when one has done all he or she can on the work in question. Otherwise, one is already on rocky ground, and any criticism might crumble what structure was in the novel to begin with. By being brutal, but fair, the author is given an overabundance of good criticism. The author then can decide how brutal he or she wants to be in correcting his or her work. On the flip side, if one is tepid in his or her criticism, or is unfair, then he or she doesn't give the author much to work with, either because he or she isn't giving enough criticism, or is giving criticism of an inferior quality.

3.) Don't lose the forest through the trees.

In books, pacing is critical. If you tell an author to slash an entire episode out of a novel, notice how doing so effects the flow of the story. Maybe nothing is needed to fill in the vacuum. Maybe something is. Also, don't be so concerned about grammatical and spelling errors that you ignore the arc of the story or the development of the characters. You should make a note of such errors, but chances are that the author will pick up most of those errors himself or herself through the many rewrites that follow your critique. On the other hand, always correct passages that are murky in meaning, or that could be taken to mean something intentionally hilarious.

4.) Read through the work more than once.

Ideally, you should read through once without stopping, then write down anything you noticed that was wrong on a sheet of paper. The second time, do a close reading, stopping to write down further criticisms. Finally, read through it a third time to see if there is anything that you missed. You shouldn't read through the manuscript less than three times, but feel free to read through it more than three times. The more times you're willing to read through the piece, the more helpful your criticism will be. And, like a novel, it pays to step away from the manuscript for a while, then come back to it and see if any of your criticisms have changed.

5.) Make sure to point out the good stuff, too.

No one likes hearing all bad news, so make sure that you mention what works as well as what doesn't work. After all, the author needs to know what he or she is good at, as well as what he or she is not good at. And be specific. Don't just say that everything you didn't criticize was good. Mention which parts were effective, and why, which leads me to my last rule...

6.) Be thorough, but concise.

Explain what works and why, what doesn't work and why, and suggestions on how to make the bad parts better. Include as much criticism as you can in as few words as possible, using proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Unless you're writing an article for a magazine or newspaper, your purpose is not to show off your brilliant writing skills. The only skills the author needs from you are your analytical skills.

This last rule applies equally well to writing fiction, or any other genre, for that matter. Don't be a showoff when writing. Writing should serve the work it's in, rather than the other way around.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

One Crazy Week, and Experiences of a Lifetime

Tomorrow I am meeting one of my Japanese friends in New York City. She is the first of my Japanese friends to make the trip to the East Coast since I returned home, and so she will be the first of my Japanese friends that I will meet up with since I left Japan. I haven't decided yet whether to spend Tuesday in NYC, as well, though if there is room for me at the guest house where she is staying (as she says there is--and for free), then I shall forfeit the bus ticket I had for that night and come back the following night on a cheaper bus. Twenty-two dollars (for the missed bus ride) is a cheap night in NYC, but I want to make sure that, in fact, I will be allowed to stay there for free. If you've read my blog entry from two weeks ago, you'll know that, once again, I am overanalyzing this situation.

Why should such a small amount matter? Well, I don't like to waste anything, and when one is trying to move out of one's childhood home--and is not earning much money substitute teaching (and none over summer break)--one cannot afford to waste any money. It's too bad I didn't buy the second bus ticket at the ticket counter, though they cost a little more (but are refundable). Okay, okay, I know. What's money versus hanging out an extra day with someone whom I haven't seen in a year-and-a-half? I agree, but my conditioning is such that, in the present moment, I worry not so much about losing that money as wondering if I should attempt to exchange it for another ticket, despite the fact that e-tickets are "non-refundable and non-exchangeable." My dad always says not to believe everything that you read, but apart from an emergency situation (or the time when I accidentally selected the wrong date for one of my Greyhound Bus tickets, but caught my mistake that same day), I don't see how I could exchange it for anything less than paying full price for another ticket.

Learning to let go of things is another trait I have yet to learn. I cling to everything. People, places, pets, things. I have gotten better, as the cardboard box in my closet, containing items to throw out, attests to, but the fact that I'll be lucky if I fill the whole box shows how far I have to go. Then again, most of my furniture (if not all of it) will be staying here when I move.

Case in point: after I went to London my junior year in college, every time I tried to relate to someone else's experience, my sentence would always start with, "When I was in London..." Since coming back from Japan, my sentences still often start with, "When I was in Japan," even over a year later.

Unlike my experiences in London, however, my experiences in Japan have not been replaced by American experiences memorable enough to take their place. Not that all of my experiences in London have been shaded over, but I no longer start most of my sentences with, "When I was in London," whereas I still start many of my sentences with, "When I was in Japan," or "When I was in Tokyo," or "When I visited Kyoto." People who have never lived overseas for an extended period of time will find it difficult to relate to me on the deepest of levels, since that is where these experiences lie. But then, I may have trouble relating to them for the same reason. Things that were once familiar to me now seem strange.

I do find it odd how certain people to whom I was very close in high school or college are no longer that close to me, while others to whom I was moderately close back then are closer to me now. Not that this is always the case. I do believe that this closeness changes less over time the older you are when you become or stay friends with someone, because both of you get closer to having lived through all the main experiences that define you the older you get (19th century French writers would be proud of this sentence). So, people who share experiences when younger but encounter far different experiences when older are more likely to grow further apart as they age.

In a way, it's sad that while shared experiences can bring you closer to others, it can also drive others away, but such is life. C'est la vie. しょうがない。