Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Great news!

Back from India! What an amazing, awesome, spectacular trip! But before I get into that, I want to talk just a little bit about the events that preceded it, along with some great news! Just after returning from India, I found out that my novel, Treasure Traitor, has made it as a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough novel award contest! (Top 250 entries out of 5,000 to start, worldwide!) At this stage anyone can download, rate, and review an excerpt on Amazon.com, providing feedback about the book to the publishers at Penguin. The more good reviews I get the better! If I win the contest, I get a contract with Penguin publishing! And even if I don`t place first, second or third, the higher I get in the contest the more attractive the book will look to other publishers. You can find the excerpt at http://www.amazon.com/Treasure-Traitor-Excerpt-Breakthrough-ebook/dp/B003CV7UJS/ref=sr_1_228?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270008096&sr=1-228. It`s a super short excerpt, less than ten pages. And of course, you`re more than welcome to tell your friends, family members, and other book-lovers about it. I would really appreciate it!

But some folks are having trouble with the download, so I`ll paste the excerpt here. A note on Acha: in the actual excerpt I was able to denote his thought-speech with the traditional carrot sign used in most sci-fi and fantasy, but this isn`t allowed in blogger, so here I have to use dashes -. Sorry about that; hopefully it won`t be too confusing when he`s thought-speaking. I guess I`ll get to India in my next post.

Prologue

I will not survive this day.

That much is clear to me as I fly over the tents of The Kingdom’s most skilled warriors. I see tall, hairless Pyrans redirecting their own heat, setting objects about them ablaze. Fold-ear Glacians suck warmth from the ground, turning the grass to ice. Hunched, silent Noctans reach into each others minds to pull out their greatest fears and doubts. All eight Kingdom races and some sub-races are present. The very thought of it makes my wings…I mean my hands shake.

I sit at my desk, looking over an old, tattered manuscript until my black carrion-eater, Acha, (or Strong Beak as he refers to himself), glides in through the tower window and lands on my shoulder. He nibbles affectionately on my ear, trying to cheer me.

-Free Wind see soldiers through Strong Beak’s eyes?- By now I am so used to his thoughts that the images, sensations and emotions he sends me feel like my own.
-Strong Beak and Free Wind slashing and clawing throngs twice big in City Dazar’s streets.-

I chuckle in spite of myself. “I remember it differently.”

Acha cocks his head to one side. -Fresh, luscious smell of carrion coming sunrise.-

I stop laughing. “It’ll be us.”

Acha doesn’t reply. He knows as well as I that this is a suicide mission. We are to act as decoys while the Commander…well, it’s not my place to say. Something important for the Resistance. Many lives at stake.

We sit silently for a moment. The sounds of the others in the fortress begin to die away as they leave. Soon it will just be Acha and me. Like old times.

"How long until the enemy arrives?” I ask him.

-Sunset.-

“Just enough time to go over the final volume.”

I look down at the bundle of paper before me and stroke the pages. It seems silly that I bothered to write it; it’ll probably be destroyed during the siege. But just in case, I want to make sure I have the story right. After all, it is my history. Or our history, I should say.

Chapter One

Country Mit on Planet Hurma, the Hierarchy in the 221st year of Dictator’s reign

The day I met my best friend, he tried to eat me.

I still remember that day with the sharp, sensory detail of a bird soaring over a valley in search of its next meal. The early morning desert sun beat down on Mother’s dark hair, forming rivulets of sweat that trickled down her neck as she filled a yellow yacherath skin bag with water. She straightened, swinging the skin over her shoulder, a sling and bag of stones across the other.

“Please let me come!” I begged for the third time. “I just want to watch.”

Mother shook her head, pieces of her bun coming loose and flopping about. “A hunt is no place for a ten-year-old girl.”

“Vasaran’s ten and he’s going.”

She sighed. “Your Promised has been training for the hunt his whole life. You, however, have other things to attend to. Like your dance lesson today.”

My shoulders slumped. “I’ll never reach monseera while flouncing around with Kakra Braknee stepping on my heels.”

“Renagada, daughter of Hasar!” Her voice was sharp, but a small smile betrayed her amusement. She turned back to her saddlebags, packing them on the hairless, bluish-purple rump of her bulky bushyan. Its single eye stared at her, awaiting her next silent command. Until the bushyan received it, it was content to run its toothless sucker mouth over the ground, spitting out the sand and ingesting whatever tiny creatures it found. Something rattled in the metal cage lying in the sand beside Mother, but the bars were so close together I couldn’t tell what it was.

“Are you ready, Shira?” My father approached Mother from behind, examining her progress but not bothering to help.

I tried to use my “youngest daughter charm,” as Mother called it, while remaining respectful. “Papa, it would please me greatly to accompany you on the hunt. I promise I will only watch. Please let me!”

He stared past me at the family crest on our East Tower, just to the right of the King’s Tower. It was a common custom of his, perhaps a subconscious habit performed when reflecting on his responsibilities as Commander of the King’s Defenders and lord of our household.

“You may,” he said at last without looking at me.

“Hasar!” Mother fixed her eyes on him, worried, pleading, but he didn’t look at her either.

“I have my reasons, Shira.”
I wanted to run to him and throw my arms around his waist, but knowing this would be inappropriate, I curtsied low and gave the traditional response.

“I thank you most sincerely for your favor, Father. I will always seek to serve you better than your other daughters.”

He nodded, then returned to his bushyan beside the king, whispering something in his ear. The king gave a dismissive gesture with his hand that I took to mean, Do as you wish.

“Hurry and prepare,” Mother instructed, her voice soft and subdued. “The king will wait for no one.” She walked away, probably to check on the other women. A light, fluttering feeling filled my stomach as I drew water from the well into a rough yacherath skin and strapped a knife to my belt. Just a precaution. I didn’t consider the cause of Mother’s concern until several years later. I was her only child and she tended to be overprotective to the point of absurdity. My father, though I’m sure he loved me in his own way, had twenty other children by two other wives. He provided well and cared for us as best he knew how, but unlike many fathers, he refused to pick favorites. With his busy schedule, he treated us all with the same distant affection.

“Why is Weird Eyes allowed to go?” I heard Girma, my fifteen-year-old cousin, whine behind me.

Because I'm smarter than you. I almost turned and said this to her face, but my aunt spoke up for me. “She's a bit young, but I don’t see why she shouldn’t go. She is Kakra Hasar's daughter and Vasaran's Promised, after all. Hunting will most likely be her fate someday.”

Girma sniffed. “Vasaran's bride maybe, but Hasar's daughter? I remember when she was just a babe and one of her eyes turned gray instead of brown, and the other? I hardly know what to call that color. Poor Hasar ordered the religious kakra to ask the gods if she really was his daughter. Maybe they said the wrong prayer. Funny how her mother hasn't had any other children.”

It took all my will to keep my eyes on my preparations and not smack her. Girma never tired of telling that story, but everyone knew I was Hasar's daughter. Full blooded nobility. I could recite my family lineage back fifty generations, better than her. I couldn't help but glare at Girma from the corner of my eye.

She must have taken the look as some kind of confession, for she smirked. “I’ll bet Hasar just let her come along to teach her a lesson, show her she’s not ready for the hunt so she’ll stop nagging him to let her go.” She sighed. “But I suppose they’ll eventually have to let her become good at something useful. Might as well be hunting since the military will never take her. What with her eyes, they'd probably think she was a halfer. Maybe her real father was from The Kingdom.”

“Don't say such things!” my aunt cried, making a sign to ward off evil. “Those Pale Skin demons haven't attacked this castle in over a hundred years. There's no enemy blood running through anyone's veins here. You keep quiet, Girma, and give respect where respect is due.” When my aunt turned her back, I flashed Girma a triumphant grin and she narrowed her beady brown eyes at me.

Mother came back just as I was hoisting myself onto a young bushyan. She saw Girma, gave a curt nod and a dismissive wave of her hand. It was no secret she didn't like her sister's youngest daughter, and Girma had no choice but to obey her and go back to the castle. “Remember, you are only an observer,” Mother told me.
“Leave the real hunting to those of us with experience.”

“What are you stalking today?” I asked.

“Birds.” She reached into the cage beside her and took out a star-diver. It cried out in a shrill voice and tried to fly away but Mother held tightly to the chain around its leg. “Today we’re hunting birds with birds.”

Looking at the star-diver perched on her gloved arm caused the old conflict inside me to flare up again. I remembered the time Mother returned from a hunt with two dead monarants, the animals she used to entertain and protect the king. They looked like bloody heaps dragging behind the hunting party. Mother skinned them for their leather hides. In the desert, nothing can be wasted. I thought Mother’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of her monarants was beyond cruel. But what could I say? If we did not hunt, we’d have no food, and I wanted to share Mother’s fate, the fate of all monara, to control these powerful creatures. So far, though, no beast-bond had occurred for me. I felt as if I had a timepiece filled with sand hanging around my neck. If I didn’t reach monseera by the time I turned fifteen, there would be no hope for me to ever gain a place of honor in the king’s court.

You always find something to be unsettled about, I scolded myself. Just be happy.

I took my place at the back of the hunting party, staying beside Mother’s lumbering bushyan. Being head monara, she always rode behind the other monara to keep an eye on their monarants and take control if necessary. A religious kakra stretched out his arms and chanted to Hizan, the god of the hunt, and we were off, trotting at a good pace.

As we traveled from our oasis, the dirt became sandy and the tall palm trees gave way to cacti and shrubs. There wasn’t much in the way of civilization. Just old rocks stacked on more old rocks that used to be part of a thriving castle town before some ancient siege destroyed it.

I counted the people in the hunting party. Seventeen in all; a fairly large group. Only one of the three divisions of kakra were present, the landed. No, wait, there was one war kakra also, on leave from his commanding duties at some distant battlefield. He seemed a bit sulky, maybe because he wasn’t leading the party. That task fell to the king, my father, and Kakra Vasa. Vasa was Master Hunter and the father of my future husband, Vasaran, who rode beside him. I wished for a brief moment that I could ride near Vasaran and my father, but quickly banished the thought, as women always ride in back of the hunting party. Mother could have easily led the group and found the prey with her monarants, but that would be too easy. It was far more fun, my father often said, to look for the signs and symbols animals leave behind and track them that way. I had no idea what “signs and symbols” accompanied birds, nor would my father ever teach me. Tracking was for men, just as training monarants was for women.

My excitement waned as the searing sun rose higher in the sky. By midday I’d drunk most of my water and there was still no sign of our prey. I felt dizzy from the heat and slackened my pace. It’s hard work to ride a bushyan. Their curved, slick backs and stubby necks make it difficult to find a secure grip. By now my thighs and bottom were sore. Not for the first time in my life, I wished for the old days the story tellers spoke of, when people rode smoothly on hunks of metal that could glide in the air faster than the fastest bird, but those days were long gone. I hated to whine, but I couldn’t help it.

“Mother, how much longer?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.
“It’s not uncommon for a hunt to last all day. You know that.”

I did, but I hadn’t realized how tiring it was. Even worse, I had forgotten to relieve myself before I left the castle. Each bounce on the bushyan made my bladder feel closer to bursting. I lagged further and further behind. Mother tried to stay with me but my father kept calling her, obliging her to keep up with the rest. Finally, Vasa blew a yazar horn, the signal for sighted prey, and everyone bolted forward. I tried to muster my energy and heel my bushyan faster, but it must have sensed my weakness. It stopped by an outcrop of cacti, dug its three hooves into the sand, uncurled the long proboscis above its toothless mouth and stabbed the sharp end into a needle-free part. It drank greedily.

“Go!” I kicked my leather boots into its sides. “Come on now!” But it just kept slurping away.

“Mother, Father!” My throat was so parched the words didn’t carry.

Sliding off the bushyan, I squatted behind the rocks. But relieving my bladder didn’t relieve my anxiety. How could they leave me behind? Don’t they realize I’m missing?

I thought about going back to the castle, but didn’t know where I was. The wind swept our tracks away and there were no distinguishing landmarks. Looking around, my father's “landed” kakra status seemed silly. He may have owned much of the desert surrounding the castle, but what good were piles and piles of sand?

The bushyan started to wander off. “Come back!” I cried. It glanced at me with its lazy eye, then continued on its meandering way. I consider following it but feared I would only become more lost. Bushyans never return to the castle unless they're led back. They would rather roam free, looking for moss to eat.

My throat felt as if I’d swallowed sand. I drank the last bit of my water, which only took the edge off my thirst. The water skin slipping from my fingers, I sat beside a rock. Tears blurred my vision and I lay down.

I’m going to die, I realized.

I felt sick to my stomach. Waves of heat swept over me until their heaviness slid over my eyelids. I saw nothing but darkness.

***

Something sharp pocked my arm. I jerked awake.

“Acha!” Shrieking, a large black bird hopped off of me, yellow eyes wide. It had a thin layer of gray feathers on its wrinkled head and a curved black beak spattered with little drops of blood. My arm ached and I glanced at it to see a small, shallow wound where the bird tried to dig into my flesh.

“A carrion-eater!” I scooted back. “I’m not dead! Don't touch me!”

The bird stopped “acha-ing” and cocked its head to one side.

-Girl attacking black bird. Fear!-

The image and emotion seemed to be fed to me via some invisible string, traveling from the bird’s head and penetrating my mind.

I shook my head hard. The picture faded but the sensation did not.

“By the gods,” I whispered. “I’ve reached monseera. You’re my monarant!” For an instant my excitement made me forget how feared carrion-eaters were by my people, but I quickly remembered this, waving my arms. “Evil! Go away!”

My gestures, weak as they were, scared the bird. It tried to fly but only managed to flap one wing, while the other remained limp. Its shoulder looked raw, bloody.
I felt a strange, burning sensation in my right shoulder. It was faint, but it caused a surge of empathy to rise within me. Something outside myself seemed to compel me. I felt its pain; how could I not help it? I reached out to it, but it hopped away, snapping its beak.

-Monara whipping birds. Chains. Pain!-

“No, I’m not like that.” I focused on the image of me repairing its wing, tried to send the picture to it by the invisible line between us. The bird stopped hopping, but continued to stare at me with unblinking yellow eyes. How strange! Most carrion-eaters have black eyes, but not this one. It reminded me of my own strange eyes, one amber and the other misty gray, instead of both being dark brown like everyone else’s. I wondered if the other birds made fun of it like my cousins made fun of me.

In mental pictures, I showed it the hunt and me being left behind. With these thoughts, my thirst returned and I slumped against the rock behind me.

The bird looked at me with something akin to sympathy. I couldn’t read any emotion in its eyes, but could sense the bird radiating the feeling at me.

-Black bird wounded above right wing. Trying to fly, looking up at nest and nest mates in palm trees with longing. Compassion.-

I had the impression the bird understood how I felt and wanted to help me.

“How? You can’t fly up and scout out the hunting party.”
It must have sensed my doubt, but it didn’t reply for a moment. Then it looked to the pile of rocks beside us.



This reminded me that birds have excellent eyesight. “Good idea!” When I stood, the top of the bird’s head came just past my knees. Pretty big for a bird, but when I reached out my hand and it hopped on, it was surprisingly light. It didn’t have curved talons like birds of prey, but its nails were still sharp and pierced my bare skin, making me cringe. Something like remorse radiated from it, but I formed the image of it staying perched on my hand, so it didn’t move.

I lifted the bird high above my head. Through its eyes I saw a line of tiny dots in the distance coming back. One of the dots, probably Mother, hurried ahead of the rest.

“Praise be to Hizan,” I whispered to the god of the hunt. All we had to do was wait for them.

I let the bird down and sat beside it on the rock. To keep my mind off my thirst and fatigue, I asked “What’s your name?”

It cocked its head to one side, not understanding my spoken language.

“Oh, um…” I thought about my own name and its meaning. Renagada. Free Spirit or Free Wind; spirit and wind were the same word in the old language. I showed him a mental picture of myself running over the dunes with the wind blowing my hair behind me.

-Understanding. Chick pecking open its shell and leaping out.-

I realized this must be its name. I couldn’t translate it exactly, some combination of “early bird” “determined” and “strong beak.”

“Can I just call you Acha?”

Pointing to the bird, I repeated the word “Acha” several times. It caught on surprisingly fast, for it repeated its name, then added “Rena, Rena!”

I smiled. “Sure, you can call me Rena. By the way, are you a boy bird or girl bird?”

This was harder to articulate in pictures, as I didn’t know the anatomy of a male person, let alone a male bird. I tried different images for a long, frustrated moment. Acha didn’t seem to understand at all, then I finally realized it was my reason for asking that confused it, not my question. I sensed annoyance, as if I were asking something silly like whether it preferred its dinner to have fur or no fur. Acha showed me two birds staring each other down while puffing up their feathers to make themselves look bigger, then two different birds tussling on top of each other.

“All right, I understand! Gender only matters to you in dominance and mating. I was just curious.” I would soon learn that carrion-eaters detest trivial details, though out of respect Acha often humored me. Now was one of those times.

-Strong Beak feeding grown bird and young.-

After puzzling over this and what I knew about some birds, I translated “male” as “food giver” and “female” as “protector.” Acha must be a boy.

How were you separated from your nest mates?

I expected this to make him sad, and though it did, I was surprised by the level of acceptance he felt.

-Monara with sling hurling stone at Strong Beak. Stone striking Strong Beak. Hunters following a wounded bird back to nest and killing nest mates. Many, many birds like Strong Beak sharing nests in palm trees. Strong Beak staying on ground, not returning to them.-

“How noble.” I will tend your wing, protect you, be your nest mate, I promised. But you will always fly free. I will never cage you.

-Mother bird defending chicks from giant fanged yerishma lizard.-

I felt a powerful emotion radiating from him, one of the most intense I’d ever experienced, yet strangely tender. -Honor.-

I knew then he was making a pledge to me: his strength, his talents. His life. Deeply moved, I bowed to him, sending back the same image. Mother bird defending her chicks.

“Renagada!”

I looked up. The hunting party was in plain sight now, moving with the sluggishness of people returning from a long journey and battle, dragging the carcasses of birds behind them. All except Mother, who heeled her mount ahead of the rest. As she came closer she waved, her hair tousled and her red robe covered with dust. She smiled until she saw Acha perched beside me on the rock.

“I thought I killed that cursed creature!” She pointed at Acha, no doubt commanding the bird on her arm to attack him.

“Stop!” I picked Acha up, letting him rest on my shoulder while ignoring his sharp nails digging into my skin. “It was you, Mother? Acha’s a good bird-- he saved me. How could you want to hurt him?”

“Have you lost your senses?” Mother continued to stare at Acha as if he might attack me any moment. “Carrion-eaters are disdained by the gods!”

“What’s all this noise?” My father came up behind Mother, his clothes and hair dusty and disheveled as well, but he sat straight as ever on the back of his bushyan.

My heart beat in my throat so hard I could barely speak, but I managed to compose myself enough to bow to him. “I have reached monseera, Papa.”

“Why, that’s a fine thing! No need to be upset, Shira.”

Mother took a deep breath, her face a whirlwind of emotion. “It certainly is a fine thing, but we must finish the job I started and kill the carrion-eater now. They attack those who try to control them. Anyone who goes near them dies of horrible diseases and--”

“Nonsense.” My father smiled at me, a gesture typically foreign to his face. Pride swelled within me until he added, “This bird is just a phase, her first monarant. Once she gains others, she will forget the disgusting creature and move on to greater things.”


Chapter Two

Country Mit on Planet Hurma, the Hierarchy in the 226th year of Dictator’s reign

I ran over the dunes, the crescent moon’s dim light barely preventing me from tripping over the jagged rocks that lay in wait beneath the sand. My feet and sides burned; I had to stop. Acha flew up behind me and landed on my outstretched leather gauntlet, shuffling up my arm to perch on my padded shoulder. I sensed his pain.

“Sorry.” We’d run nearly half the night. Age, accompanied by its minions of stiff and sore, crept into his joints. Acha’s wounded shoulder had healed long ago, though his wings hung lopsided now, the right lower than the left. Like most carrion-eaters, he couldn’t fly fast or flap for long, but preferred to soar in circles on warm air currents. There weren’t many of these at night, so he had to beat his wings more than he liked. The aches and shortness of breath that plagued him recently only made flying harder.

Now what? I wondered. My first instinct was to head for one of the other Hierarchy planets, but that seemed a bit reactionary. Besides, how could I get there before Father found me? There were no portals I could personally access around here; nothing but cactus and shrubs for that matter. It reminded me of the day I met Acha. Had I been the same insecure ten-year-old I was then, I would have broken into tears. But I was fifteen, a woman now. Or tomorrow I’d be, anyway.

Think, I told myself. If only I could see better…

“Acha, will you fly up?”

I pointed to the sky and formed the mental image of him surveying the desert for people. He immediately did so, forgetting his pain. Birds worship duty, and sometimes he was so diligent I had to stop him from hurting himself.

“Not so high. I want to catch you if you fall.”

Seeing through Acha’s eyes always excited me. To him the world was ten times sharper and twice as colorful. I could see the pale yellow air drafts, which he caught to rise higher. Carrion-eaters are also some of the few birds that have a better sense of smell than people and a whole world of fragrances came alive to me-- distant desert flowers, a twinge of salt in the rocks, the acrid fear of a rodent being crushed by a legless.

After he’d circled a hundred spans up, we could see and smell in fine detail three pack bushyans and an old man and middle-aged woman just north of us. Probably traveling at night to avoid the day’s heat. The middle-aged traveler wore the red of a married woman and a long white scarf that covered her whole face except her eyes, to protect her from sand and wind. But her husband dressed in the billowy pants and tight-fitting, ornate vest of a treasure trader.

I held back. The memory of Mother’s voice warned, “Commoners, not to be trusted.” And to make matters worse, treasure traders. They traveled from planet to planet “collecting” rare items and selling them at outrageous prices. Everyone knew they were nothing better than thieves and vagabonds.

Acha swooped down and perched on my shoulder, chastising me with a sharp “cha!” and nipping my ear. Carrion-eaters have no concept of social class except in terms of territory, who eats first, and who’s allowed to mate with whom. They’re all for banding together to protect themselves.

-Wild boars and fanged lizards attacking Free Wind and Strong Beak.-

“Fine,” I relented, batting his beak away. “We’ll travel with them, but I have to act my status or they’ll be suspicious.” I showed him the image of us heading toward them, followed by me acting friendly and the treasure traders looking at me strangely. He settled back on my shoulder, accepting this compromise without further debate.

I hurried in their direction, but as soon as we drew near enough to see each other’s faces, I slowed to a saunter, head held high and back straight, trying to conceal my nervous trembling.

“The stars' blessing on you, travelers,” I greeted them. “Where are you headed?”

Taking in my blue zeeara, fastened at the shoulder with a silver brooch, the golden bangles lining my arms and all my other jewelry, the old man addressed me with the noble’s title. “The stars' blessing, Kakra. We are on our way to City Trabin.”

“Splendid . I am…not aristocracy, actually, but a traveling performer for kakra. My troupe woke and broke camp this evening, leaving while I still slept. Accidentally, of course. They were headed for City Trabin…so, for safety purposes, may I travel with you?”

“Are you a monara?”

The scratchy voice startled me at first, until I realized it came from the woman. I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the flies that seemed to be buzzing in my stomach. Many people distrusted monara because of their power and the dangerous authority games they play. She probably wouldn’t believe me if I told her Acha was my only monarant.

“A monara?” I laughed. “I hate the fiends! No, I’m just a lowly performer…lowly compared to the kakra, I mean.”

“Then why is that disgusting carrion-eater perched on your shoulder?” she snapped.

“Oh, Acha? He’s just part of my act. He talks. Say something, Acha!”

“Pretty lady, pretty lady!” -Stupid, squawking bird in cage. Embarrassment.-

I smoothed back the feathers around his ear holes to calm him and let him know I appreciated it.

The woman examined us, as if still not quite trusting, then her scowl turned up in a smile.

“Yes, I see now. Forgive me for being suspicious; travelers can't be too careful. We live in City Trabin, actually, when we’re not abroad. What say you, Balan? Shall we let her spend the night with us?”

The old man looked surprised. “She is certainly welcome, but won’t she want to look for her troupe as soon as she arrives?”

“Not at night,” I replied, surprised but relieved by the woman's hospitality. “Lots of trouble makers about.” Too late to room at an inn, I realized. Best to stay hidden, anyway. “I would be honor…pleased to stay with you until sunrise.”

The woman nodded. “You see, Balan? Come then, we’re wasting the night.”

I followed them, unable to concentrate on anything. The events that had driven me from my home were still too fresh to reflect on.

End of excerpt

Thanks for reading it! Another way, if you want to tell friends and family, is to just type "Treasure Traitor" into the amazon search bar (it's the first result) and then download the Kindle for PC. Please write lots of good reviews! But of course, honest, constructive criticism is also appreciated. You can include it in the review or send it to me separately. Let me know what`s wrong with it too so if it doesn`t get accepted, I can keep improving it and submit it elsewhere!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Irish Parade!

OK, now for the rest of the week! My rice cooker broke on Thursday, but my friend Charlie sent me his spare all the way from Nagasaki! Wasn`t that nice of him? Thursday I went to an electronics store with my friend Li and helped him buy a decent electronic piano and gave him his first piano lesson. He really likes it, is a fast learner and practices every day. (If only my English students were so diligent!) When I get back to the U.S., maybe I`ll get back into piano and teach with my Mom, taking the beginners while she has the intermediate and advanced. It would be something to put on my resume when applying for a church choir director position!

But the following week I had three hefty disappointments. The first was that I got an email from the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. writing contest saying they never received my entry fee. I spent hours frantically trying to rectify the situation, but nope. Rules are rules. I`m really mad about that, but at the same time can understand. They can`t make an exception for me, or they`d have to make an exception for everyone. They can`t be responsible for stuff getting lost in the mail. Even though I spent weeks, months preparing those entries…it`s not a total loss. I guess I can enter the same ones next year.

The second is that I woke up Thursday morning the 11th with Norwork virus. I threw up twice; I couldn`t hold anything down, not even water. But God is always kind to me through other people. My friend Li took me to the doctor. He didn`t have a car, so he kept trying to get me to ride on his back, but I refused, holding onto him for support as I stumbled down the street. He translated between the doctor and me and explained everything about how to take my medicine. The way back he insisted on calling a taxi. Then he cooked dinner for me, enough food to last the next couple of days. I was so weak from vomiting and dizziness that he actually carried me to my bed, despite my feeble protests that I could “do it myself.” He came back to check on me a few times to “make sure I was still alive” and brought me bread for breakfast. I think there`s this very cruel stereotype that Asian men don`t know how to be gentlemen. Perhaps that`s true sometimes, but they really outdo all others on loyalty to a friend.

Fortunately, it really was just a 48 hour bug. By Friday morning, actually, I was already able to eat again, slowly, carefully, and I almost went to school in the afternoon, but Li convinced me not to, and I`m glad. I was still pretty dizzy. My friends are always telling me, “Laura, if you can`t do it for yourself, then do it for me. There are too many people that care about you for you to be so reckless or not take care of yourself.” So I am making an extra effort. When I promise someone I`ll be careful, I try to take the promise more seriously. The stomach problem is actually somewhat of an ongoing one, as it`s been hurting off an on for weeks. Li thinks it might be the water since our city gets it from the not-so-clean river, (and now that I think about it, none of the teachers or students ever drink from the tap) so he made me promise not to drink unboiled or unfiltered water anymore. At first I thought that was silly, but now I realize he might be right.

Anyway, the third disappointment was that I realized I lost my camera. I searched everywhere, even went to the train stations and asked if it was in any sort of lost and found. Nowhere. So I ended up buying a new one on Saturday the 13th before I left for the St. Patrick`s Day parade in Ise. The good news is it was very similar to my old one and on sale, so it cost about half the price (Japan has a lot cheaper electronics anyway). But I forgot to buy a memory card for it! So I couldn`t take any videos; I had to rely on pictures from my I-phone. Bummer, that`s why the pictures I post this week might not be so clear. But Saturday afternoon I went back and bought one, or several, actually, since I`ll be in India for ten days without any way to transfer the pictures to my computer, and buying four 2GB was a lot cheaper than buying one 8GB, believe it or not.

Then I was off to Ise for the St. Patrick`s Day parade! It`s sponsored by the owners of a local Irish pub, and all the foreigners, Irish or no, come to march in the parade. I`m not Irish, but I can imitate the accent, or at least well enough for the Japanese, and I can dance few jigs, so nobody knew any different. Ise`s about an hour northeast of my town, Nabari. Here`s the musicians warming up. They were very good and I sang along to the tunes I knew.



Then we started marching! I was near the front. Here`s one festive Japanese spectator on his keitai cellphone, dressed like a good old Dubliner:



Talk about an anachronism!

At first I thought there were more people in the parade than spectators, then I realized they spectators were joining the parade! That`s the Japanese way, I guess. Here`s about halfway through the parade:



And by the time we crossed over the highway bridge, we had grown from about twenty people to several hundred!



We had just about everything Irish you can think of, including people slugging down Guinness. Here`s a Japanese leprechaun:



Here`s a dancing green frog lady:



And our very own St. Patrick! Here`s me with the authentic Irishman:



We marched for about five kilometers or so, maybe three miles, until we came an underground shopping area with a stage. There we ate free Ise oysters and watched some shows! The first one was the “Ise shima power rangers.” It`s some crazy tourism tactic they made up years ago. Ise shima is the ocean front/islands of Mie prefecture. (Shima means island.) So the mission of the power rangers is to “protect Ise Shima tourism from the evil fun-killing tactics of Da-Lark.” Here`s a picture of the wanted poster:



And here`s the evil “Da-Lark” himself:



And here are the power rangers performing:



From what I could understand, it was just a stupid skit about us all getting along and promoting good, safe tourism between foreigners and Japanese. Kind of funny though, in a cheesy sort of way.

Then there was a Japanese bagpiper, either from Osaka or Nagoya, I don`t remember. At first I was surprised that there would be an Irish bagpiper in Japan of all places. But then she came on stage. I didn`t bother to tell her that she was dressed like a Scotsman, that she was playing the Scottish, not the Irish bagpipes and traditional Scottish, not Irish music and that she was a half step flat on her high notes and breathing in the middle of all her phrases. None of the Japanese knew the difference.



Then there was Irish dancing. Mathew, an Assistant Language Teacher from Colorado, went first, and he was good! He could jump so high and stomp so hard he almost broke the stage and had to jump down onto the floor. Turns out, he used to compete. Ashley from Canada, a professional Irish dance teacher (also an ALT), said he`s world-class. Here`s a picture:



Then Ashley danced. She`s good too. Then she taught us all several dances. It was a lot of fun! Then a Japanese Irish music band from Osaka played, and they were really good, and we all kept dancing! Her students joined us and we danced for over an hour! There`s nothing funnier than watching Japanese people dance an Irish jig!

Afterward, everyone else either went home or went drinking, but I wasn`t satisfied with either option. So I rounded up two other girls, Niki (who`s going to India with me) and Marissa, and we visited the outer shrine of Ise, one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Here`s a really old, gigantic tree:



And here`s the exit of the shrine:



It really wasn’t that impressive. The Grand Shrine is much bigger and prettier, but it takes a long time to get there, so we couldn`t go. Sometime, hopefully during sacura (cherry blossom) season. They just remodeled the famous bridge leading up to it!

That was Saturday! Sunday, as I already wrote, I went to church and flower viewing with my church family. So it was a really fun, awesome week, despite the disappointments.

Prayer Requests for this week: India trip! I leave Friday morning! We`re still needing funds for building supplies for the houses. If you want to donate towards the building materials or just want to know more about the trip, you can visit our team`s website at: http://www.golongitude.org/www/JET_March_2010.html. Also, last week at my English and Evangelism class, two ladies prayed to Jesus to enter their lives! I`m a little bit worried about their motivations, though. Many Japanese suffer from an ailment called “kanashibari,” or sleep paralysis. They wake up and can`t move, sometimes can`t even breathe. No one knows for sure what causes it, except it is an actual physical problem, not just imagination, with the sleep center of the brain. The mind and face is awake, but the body is still asleep. The Japanese associate it with evil, binding spirits. There is an interesting correlation between the prevalence of this ailment in proximity to Buddist/Shinto shrines, especially ones dedicated to appeasing evil spirits, even when such shrines are buried under the ground, hidden, and the sufferer has no idea of their existence. Anyway, after class we were talking about kanashibari, and Pastor Toshi started telling stories about several Japanese who converted to Christianity and stopped experiencing kanashibari. The two ladies, Saikasan and Takatasan, both have severe cases of it and were really eager to be rid of it, so they prayed a prayer after Pastor Toshi asking Jesus to “enter their lives and take away their kanashibari.” Please pray that their conversion will be genuine, not just an attempt at a “quick fix” and that they will grow in their faith. Also that the class grows and others might receive Jesus.

Last thing. It`s hard for me to write about this because it concerns other people, one in particular, and I would like to preserve his honor. For that reason, forgive me if this seems vague. I`m having “men trouble.” My main problem lies with being the token gaijin (foreigner). I`m exotic. Second of all, I`m what a lot of people have described as a “mars” so throughout my life, most of my friends have been male. But some Asian men have a very hard time with the whole “just friends” idea. It`s not built into their culture. It`s very easy for misunderstandings to crop up, not just due to the language barrier, but cultural expectations and pressures. While I have always had ongoing problems in Japan with men because of these reasons, this time the misunderstanding has come to a very painful and excruciatingly confusing head, with one of my closest male friends in Japan, and I have no idea what to do about it. Part of the problem is that I don`t know my own feelings. But this is totally taboo for me because he`s not a Christian, and I have doubts as to whether he has any desire to become a Christian, since he said, “I don`t think I need Christ. I will do the best to become a better person, and I think that is enough.” So I guess just pray for wisdom and strength to do the right thing, and that he will become a Christian, but not for me.

This is most likely my last post before April 4th after I return from India. So until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

Laura

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Traditional Flower Viewing at Tsukigase

Well, I never did find my camera, so I ended up buying a new one. It wasn`t too bad; it cost a lot less than it would have in the U.S. and all the menus/instructions are in English, so it`s all right. And I got to return to tsukigase (moon river valley) again, so all the pictures of the plum blossoms I lost I got to retake!

So let me start there. Wednesday the 3rd of March some teachers and I left school at 2:00 for traditional hanami (flower viewing, or literally “flower see”). We drove way up into the mountains in Nara prefecture, about thirty minutes from our town. We rolled down the windows and boy, the smell! Pine mixed with fragrant flowers, so fresh and sweet. That`s what heaven smells like. We hiked all up and down the blossom trails. One of the teachers bought me plum ice cream and all along the way there were free samples of locally grown nuts, tea, plums, pickles, and many other tantalizing delicacies. We ended up at a really fancy, traditional Japanese restaurant at the top. It had the most gorgeous view of the river valley at sunset, but unfortunately that was one picture I wasn`t able to duplicate when I got my new camera, since my church family went during the early afternoon. But everything was perfect. At the restaurant we ate two different kinds of soup (duck and wild bore) and a delicious sweet beef stir fry, all with rice, cola and tea. The stir fry was so good I decided to try to make it later that week, and it was a great success! Here`s the recipe:

A pound any kind of meat
Quarter-Half pound mushrooms
10-15 sweet potatoes slices
Half pound any other kind of vegetables you want

Fry it in two tablespoons olive oil, just under half a cup of soy sauce, (and here`s the secret), two-three tablespoons of sugar! You let it simmer in that for as long as desired (20 minutes is good) and that`s all! Totally delicious.

I really enjoyed being with my colleagues; I know enough Japanese now to be able to understand jokes (especially puns) and make a few myself. A lot of them were teasing me about my recordings for the English test. I had to impersonate both a man and a woman and emphasize certain words, so it sounded really silly. “Actress, Grammy award winning!” Then I showed off my different accents and they were all roaring with laughter. “Comedian, Laura wa Comedian desu!” I`m actually awful at accents; if anyone in America laughed it would be out of pity. But the Japanese don`t know any difference, so might as well have fun with them.

One of the teachers who sat next to me got roaring drunk, but that was actually kind of funny because he kept asking me the names of things in English, and I would respond, and he would attempt to say them, and end up saying something else. One running joke between him and me is that he always says everything is “ichi ban,” number one. “Kore wa nihon no ichi ban tokolo des yo!” “This is the number one spot in Japan, for sure!” But he always says that, so I always reply, “But you said the last spot was ichi ban!” Or “the last food was best” or “the last person was the nicest.” But he always insists every time. So I call him “ichi ban man” and often ask him his latest ideas of what is “best.”

At the end I realized I had forgotten to take my wallet, so one of the teachers paid for me! How nice! Another teacher dropped me off back at the school a little early, around 6:45, so I had just enough time to ride my bike home for one of my adult students to pick me up at my house at 7:20 for class at the community center at 7:30. That was really fun. Since it was between Valentine`s Day and White Day (the day that Japanese men reciprocate their thanks to the women who gave them gifts on Valentine`s Day by giving them gifts in return), we did a lesson on love. The students presented about their first crush, then we did a “shopping for your Valentine” dialogue. I love my adult students. They actually study and try, but still have a good time. In comparison, I just get so frustrated with my kids at school sometimes! Why do they sit there and class and do nothing? This is their chance to learn English for free! It`s not like they even have to try hard, just participate! Ug.

For now, I`ll skip the rest of the week and get to March 14th so you can actually see some flower pictures! That`s when I went back to Tsukigase with my church family after church. Here we are, in front of one of the blooming trees:

They really are like family to me. Pastor Toshi (in front of his father`s wheel chair) and Pastor Kumi (beside him) are like my parents, always looking after me, their daughter Aiachan is like my little sister, Kae (who unfortunately couldn`t make it) is like my big sister, Yoshidasan (taking the picture) is like my grandfather, Kazumisan (not present) and her husband are like my aunt and uncle and their son (also not present) my cousin, Takatasan is another aunt, and the list goes on.

Fortunately, my Pilipino friend Karen and Chinese friend Li also got to come. Here`s a including everyone who could make it except pastor Toshi, who`s taking the picture:



Karen`s on the very left and Li is on the very right. Grandpa Yoshidasan is standing next to me. Isn`t it beautiful how the branches of the plum tree dip down, cascading with delicate flowers, like a lily-laden weeping willow, or a pink, rippling waterfall? I love it!

Here`s a better look at just the tree:



And here`s a close up of pink and white blossoms.



After climbing 3/4th of the way up the mountain, we paused at a little tea shop. As a way of saying thank you for the services I provide at the church, they bought me traditional Japanese tea! It was very delicious, especially the gelatin sweet covered in honey. Here`s me enjoying it next to Karen, with a view of the gorgeous river valley over my shoulder:



Here`s a darker pink tree at a distance:



And here`s me standing next to another:



Karen and me beside what I call the “bridal tree” because it looks like a veil! (By the way, Karen is getting married in 2012 back in the Philippines, and she invited me to come as one of her bride`s maids! I`m already excited!)



Everybody`s always so nice to me, buying me things, giving me a taste of their treats. I feel spoiled sometimes. I even indulged myself a little. I bought some mochi cakes from a little shop and shared them with Karen. They were sticky rice flower mixed with green tea and powdered sugar, stuffed with anko, or sweet red bean paste. And at the very bottom of the mountain there was a little shop selling plum trees, so you could take the joy home with you! I`m such a sucker for that. Here`s a picture of all the little trees for sale:



The store owner was so nice and helped me pick the perfect tree, my favorite color, and lowered the price way down for me, so I bought a little bonsai (miniature) purple plum tree. It`s sitting in my living room, just gorgeous! He said the flowers will come back every year for the rest of my life. I just hope I can sneak it…I mean find a legal way to transport it back to the U.S. If not, I`ll just leave it as a present for my successor.

Well, that`s all for flower viewing. Tomorrow I`ll post about the rest of the week and the St. Patrick`s Day parade/dancing in Ise!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lost camera

Wednesday afternoon I had a really lovely time at Moon river valley viewing the plum bloosoms with my coworkers. But alas, I can`t find my camera! So there`s really no point in me posting until I find it...sorry for the inconvenience! I remember having it in the car on the way back, so I`m sure it should be easy to find.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fundraising for India

Hello, everyone, I don`t normally blog in the middle of the week, but the leader of our India trip asked me if I would. Our trip is coming up in less than three weeks, and as I`ve stated before, besides paying for our own transportation to and from India, volunteer fee, and travel within India, we need to raise $15,000 in building supplies for the actual houses we`ll be building. Every single penny of that will go into the supplies only, nothing else. These concrete homes will give the Dalits (formally known as untouchables) permanant housing, very important during the monsoon season. This will increase their health, social status, and ability to provide for their families. If you would like to donate or just learn more about the trip, you can go to this link http://www.golongitude.org/www/JET_March_2010.html.

You needn`t feel like you can only donate a lot; even a little bit helps and is grately appreciated. And of course even more than donating, your prayers are always appreciated!

Blessings,
Laura Popp (L.J. Popp)

Graduation and the Japanese medical system

Great news! Out of ten thousand entries in the young adult category of the 2010 Breakthrough novel award contest, Treasure Traitor is one of the 1,000 chosen to move onto the second round! Yea! Maybe no more will come of it, but maybe, just maybe something will…

It`s been a pretty good writing week in general. An Honest Assassin is starting to take on a life of its own. I just love it when random, unexpected characters pop up! One of my major concerns with the novel starting out was that it felt “too serious,” kind of akin to the “high fantasy” I`d been reading lately, but that`s not really what I wanted. It takes place in a largely sci-fi universe and in the last book Rena was kind of a snarky, sassy-talking teenager. But in this one she`s older, middle-aged, she`s a lot more experienced and there`s a lot more at stake for her personally and the universe at large (like the survival of several unique species), so I was worried that she would become like an “old fart” without any of the life and spunk she had in the last book.

Enter Takan. Totally crazy, irritating, mischief-making Petrian with a quirky sense of humor and outrageous attitude. I wasn`t even expecting a member of the Petrian race (literally “rock people” from the Latin) to show up in this book; they`re a cave-dwelling race with weird adaptations like huge eyes, slick skin, extra long arms and legs, and suction cups and claws at the tips of their fingers to allow for survival in an underground environment. But most notably, they`re pranksters; wonderful to have as friends, but miserable for enemies. Anyway, this freaky guy brings out the childish side in Rena, both in terms of her snarky sarcasm and general, joking playfulness. He`s really helped soften some of the darker scenes, or at least provide contrast.

And I managed to submit all of my “ready” material to various publishers and agents, so I have eight things (two poems, two short stories, one middle grade novel, one young adult novel, one screenplay and one children`s picture book) out and am just waiting to hear back. Waiting is the hardest part…

Other than that, I spent most of the week trying to figure out how I’m going to go home during “Golden Week,” that is April 29th-May 10, which has a string of four national holidays in a row. I spent hours and hours searching websites and calling travel agents to get the best deals, but when it came down to it the principle at my school dashed apart all my hard work and gave me a very limited time frame with which to return. The price is so expensive I don’t even want to think about it. But it’s the only time I can go home in the next eight months, and since I haven’t seen my family for nine months, I got it worked out. I just either have to get my tickets six months in advance next year or just plan on not coming home that particular week. Christmas is probably a better option.

Tuesday my friend Li and I went down to the local plant nursery and bought some “hana mono” (flower stuff) for my sacura (cherry blossom) tree. It should be blooming in a few weeks. I`m so excited! Here`s a picture of my hyacinth (heeyashinsu in Japanese). It`s my favorite color, plus it makes my whole room smell nice:



Hana is such a pretty word. Maybe I’ll name one of my daughters that. Hmm…but maybe everyone would mispronounce it and call her “Hannah.” Then she’d always have to be correcting them and explaining it’s Japanese and she might not like that. Oh, well, it was a thought.

Yea for spring finally coming! I can actually ride my bike to school without having to wear three layers of clothes. Winter in Japan was really hard this year. I didn`t really know how to handle it and certainly wasn`t ready. But for next year, I have a “winter plan.” It involves a large stock of kerosene for my kerosene heater, special sealant for my rice paper and glass walls, warm patches (chemical patches the Japanese place under their clothes to increase blood circulation and thus stay warm and prevent frost bite), lots of flowers from the flower shop down the road, a “happy light” (blue light) instead of those stupid florescent flicker things, thermal gloves and several layers of thermal underwear. With these implements in place, I think I will fair a lot better.

By the way, I found out the reason my frostbite hasn`t totally disappeared yet is because it actually caused some inflammation in my joints, especially the smallest finger on my right hand where I tore the ligament back in September. The doctor gave me some finger exercises to do that should take down the inflammation.

Wednesday I spent most of the day helping my supervisor record the English exam for the first year students. They wanted my voice, a native speaker`s voice, on the recording. I was happy to see most of my dialogues there; apparently the teachers thought they were important enough to include on the test. They`ve started to respect my opinion a little more, since I was right so many times about the entrance exams. They often come up to me several times a day to check if they`ve written something correctly, and no offense, usually they`re wrong and I have to correct them. Usually it`s little things, like one of the teachers told me, “You must be surprised” when referring to an event that would happen in the future, and I had to explain this is only a phrase we use when exclaiming about something that happened in the past. Otherwise it sounds like a command: “Be surprised” and that`s just weird.

Did I mention I was in another bicycle accident about two weeks ago? Well, I was, and last week Monday I woke up, stretched, and felt my neck “pop” out of place. It really hurt! So one of the teachers at the school gave me the address of a good chiropractor in town, and I had an appointment for Wednesday afternoon. He was absolutely amazing! I had no idea that the Japanese school of chiropracty was so different from the Western school! There`s no “roller machine,” the chiropractor gives you a thirty minute massage first, then gently pulls or pushes the bones back into place, no “cracking.” He even spoke a little English, which helped a lot. We were able to communicate that this was an old injury from a car accident before I left America that I hadn`t been able to fully fix, which my bicycle accident reinjured. He was a little surprised at this. “Didn`t you see a chiropractor in America?”

“Well, yes, but there wasn`t time to finish the treatment and it cost a lot of money.”

He seemed a little surprised at this, but didn`t say anymore. When it was all over, they served me a fresh, hot cup of green tea, and the total price of everything came out to be just 1,000 yen, or about twelve dollars! I was shocked! They were have a special, and I had been referred by a friend, so it was a little cheaper, but the usual price was only 2,000 yen, or about twenty-five dollars! In the U.S., It`s at least quadrouple that! And here`s the really crazy part: insurance didn`t pay for any of it! How on earth does that man and his nurse make a living? He spent almost an hour on me that first time! And the second time on Saturday, again, only 1,000 yen, and about forty minutes! I asked him how many times I would have to see him, and he said only four or five total, as compared to the American ten or more times. And it already feels so much better! Anyway, here`s a picture of the sign outside the chiropractor`s office:



And here`s the sunset I saw on my way home from his office on Wednesday:



And now, a little explanation of how Japanese National Health Insurance DOES work. If you have a full-time job, you have medical insurance. It doesn`t cover dental hygiene, annual exams/checkups, contacts, orthodonics, chiropracty, or any of those other “non-essential” medicines, but those things are so cheap in and of themselves that you don`t really need insurance for them. When I first came to Japan, I was terrified of going to the doctor. Not just because of the language barrier, but I feared it would cost as much as the doctor in the U.S. My mother had a horrible experience at an American hospital where they did nothing for her and still charged thousands of dollars. How much more easily could this happen in a country where the doctor couldn`t understand my symptoms, would smile, prescribe some generic pain killer and charge me several man yen? (several hundred dollars). But then I got swine flu and I had to go. I went twice and got six different kinds of medicine (though I didn`t take all of it). Guess how much it cost? About thirty dollars. I have been to the doctor a total of six times since coming to Japan, and just received a statement of my total year-end expenditures. One hundred fifty-three dollars. And contrary to popular opinion, Japanese doctors are very nice and have excellent bedside manners. They don`t usually speak English, but usually someone at the school office can write a note for me explaining any difficult symptoms or background of the problem. The doctors are patient and if they don`t understand, I can call a friend to translate over the phone if need be. I`m not afraid to go to the doctor anymore; if I fall off my bicycle and break my finger, I go. If I`m sick for more than two days, I go. If I get frost bite or severe pain in my shoulders, I go. That`s the way it`s supposed to work.

American insurance simply doesn’t work. How many times have my parents written the insurance company claim letters and they refused to pay? After pouring all that money into it, they do nothing. Let`s face it, American insurance companies are in it to MAKE MONEY. If they don`t make money, they can`t exist. They`re a business. But guess how much I pay for insurance in Japan? I pay a small, fifteen dollar fee every month for unemployment insurance. I also pay social security, but after two years I can apply for that money and get it all back. Other insurance? Nada. But what happens when I return to America and have no insurance at all? I`ll most likely be doing part time and free lance work. Makes me want to stay in Japan forever and never come back.

Not really; I miss my family so much! But seriously, something needs to be done about the American medical system. Japan`s got it right. It`s not communist, it`s not socialist, it`s just a heck of a lot cheaper. I understand most of that cost comes from doctors having to pay malpractice insurance. Maybe Americans should just stop suing each other so much and making false claims.

Anyway, enough of that rant. Thursday night we had a good English and Evangelism class; we talked about God`s love (for Valentine`s Day lesson Part II) and how that love is not like the fickle love of a person, but eternal and never wavering and unconditional. One of the ladies started sharing stories about love like that she`d seen manifested in other people, noting that most of them were Christian. It was really great to see her, usually a very quiet a shy lady, open up like that.

Friday at school we had practice for graduation. The Japanese school year is based on a tri-mester system. First trimester is from April 1st-mid July. Summer break is about six weeks and exists so the schools don`t have to pay for air conditioning (most schools, including mine, don`t even have an air conditioner). The second trimester is from late August to mid-December, with winter break to celebrate the New Year`s holidays (the biggest holidays in Japan). The third trimester is from early January to early March, with a month in between for spring break. Of course, unlike teachers in America, Japanese teachers don`t get these breaks, except for three days before New Years Day. We do get several national holidays and twenty-five days of “ninque” or paid vacation to use, but these include sick days. It`s kind of silly. If there are no students, why do we have to come to the office? Can`t we grade papers and make lesson plans and such at home? But I`m not really complaining. Honestly, I`m pretty lucky. Mostly on those days with no students, I just have to show up and do nothing (meaning sit at my computer and write my books/blogs). It`s the other teachers that make all kinds of unnecessary work for themselves that I feel sorry for. The Japanese really are a bunch of beaurocrats.

So March 1st is graduation day. It took about as long as the American version, about two hours and forty-five minutes for three hundred students. But the Japanese do it a little differently than westerners; for one thing, there are lots of verbal cues that have to be followed exactly in time. Stand up, sit down, bow, turn, etc. It`s kind of annoying. We had to practice that for nearly two hours! Also, the students don`t actually walk across the stage. Their names are called and they simply stand and bow. Here’s a picture of the parents and students:



Notice the lack of relatives/friends present (they`re in the red chairs). There were more graduating people there than non-graduating people. And most of the parents are mothers; I counted only five fathers. 9:00am on Monday morning is just a dumb time to have a graduation, if you ask me. Most people have to work!

The school song was interesting. I have no idea what the words are or what they mean, except for “Nabari, Nabari, Kikyogaoka no wa re ra.” (We are Nabari Kikyogaoka— that`s the name of the school; Nabari is the name of the town and Kikyogaoka is the section of town.) Anyway, here`s part one and part two videos of the school song:

video

video

At the beginning of graduation they played a recording of a song I could only guess to be the Japanese national anthem. I had never heard it before, and only one or two of the older folks sang along. It was an odd, Western-style operatic song in minor, with only a few Asian “hints” in it; it reminded me of an old Italian “unrequited love” aria. It strikes me as ironic that the Japanese play the American national anthem more than their own and even know the words. I’ve heard the American national anthem at least five times since coming to Japan, but this is the first I’ve heard their own athem (if indeed that’s what it was) and it was a recording no less and nobody knew the words!

It also amuses me what some cultures find tacky and other just accept. At the actual graduation, (Monday, that is today at 9:00am) everyone made a big deal about all the teachers dressing up; some even wore full-blown kimonos, which cost about three months wages and are equivalent to a European ball gown. (They got on to me for wearing black slacks and a white dress shirt; apparently I was supposed to wear a business suit). But the kids just wore their regular school uniforms, no robes or anything, and everyone wore really silly slippers because it was in the gym. The Japanese and their slippers! For Pete`s sake, they covered the floor with a tarp, you`re not going to scratch it up! But heaven forbid we ever wear normal shoes on a hardwood floor, so they wear their super fancy kimonos with pokadot or bunny slippers. I wish I had a picture, but nobody wanted me taking a photo of their feet, so, sorry.

Another thing about shoes/feet, Japanese girls walk “pigeon-toed.” I remember reading that in a book about Native Americans just before coming to Japan, and thinking, “nobody does that!” Who wants to bet the Native Americans got it from their Asian ancestors? Anyway, here`s what it looks like:



Admittedly, those are my own feet, because like I said, nobody likes you going around snapping pictures of their feet.

Saturday on my way to the chiropractor’s, I stopped by the strawberry greenhouses to do some picking. I was hoping that would be my “adventure” for this weekend, but alas, the picking is not open to the public until late March. So I just bought a container, along with the strawberry jam and mushrooms, and went on my way. Nothing terribly exciting about that, but they were so delicious! Have I mentioned that ALL Japanese fruit and vegetables, without exception, tastes better than the American equivalent? These strawberries were so sweet and juicy; they’re just an explosion of juicy sweetness in your mouth. Of course, all Japanese fruits and vegetables tend to be at least twice as expensive as the American equivalent, so there is a trade off.

Here’s a picture from inside the green houses:




Sunday morning I wasn`t feeling too well, so I stayed home from church. But in the evening I felt better, and my friend Laura Levine recommended I see the movie Slum Dog Millionaire before I go to India. I`d heard a lot about it when I was in film school; the director even visited our university and a conference I attended in Japan, but I never had a chance to see the film. So I called my friend Li who had a copy and he came over and we watched it together. What a movie! That`s going on my top ten list. It’s basically about a young man (Jamal) who grew up in the slums near Deli, then became a contestant in the show “Who wants to be a millionaire.” He knows all the answers because of his horrible childhood. For example, one of the questions was, “In traditional depictions of the Hindu god Rama, what is he holding in his right hand?” Jamal knew the answer because as a kid his Muslim family was attacked by Hindus, and one of them was dressed as the Hindu god Rama. Another question asked “Who invented the revolver?” and he knew because his older brother kicked him out of the house saying, “Listen to the man with the Colt revolver trained on your forehead.”

The genius of the movie was really in the editing; how the shots were interwoven between present, (the man on the show) and the past, (growing up in the slums). Several beautiful metaphors were interwoven throughout the film, like a yellow scarf representing innocence and love, the idea of “blindness,” both physical and metaphorical, and the contrast between fate or karma, a Hindu concept, and God’s predestination (it is written), a Muslim concept. But all of these were really subtle and seemed to happen almost by accident (of course, having heard the director speak I know they weren’t accidents). Also there was absolutely no “telling” in the film. Even though the world Jamal and his brother lived in was completely foreign to me, I didn’t need any explanation as to why they were doing what they were doing or any of that. It depicted a foreign world perfectly while still making it universal and easy to understand. This was accomplished by a form of non-continuity editing I call “smashing.” You take one shot, then you take a different shot that has nothing to do with the first in space and time, and you smash them back to back. This was done in a lot of Soviet film. For example, show the image of people being mowed down by the Tsar’s troops, and juxtapose it with the image of cows being slaughtered. Even though the cow being slaughtered has nothing to do with the Russian revolution, we get the message without having to be “told” anything. These people are being slaughtered like cattle. Pretty powerful stuff.

Fortunately Slum Dog Millionaire was not quite so dramatic as that, but it had a similar feel to it. It’s my dream to be able to do that with my sci-fi universe; create a world and paint a perfect picture in people’s minds without having to “explain” anything. Avatar did that really well, and Orson Scott Card does a pretty descent job of it in most of his books, and definitely C.S. Lewis. Tolkien tops the list in my book, if you ignore all that appendix stuff and the Samaurillian. Someday I hope one of my stories will be a movie that is just as great as Avatar. 3D is always a plus.

And speaking of writing sci-fi, I better get back to that.

Prayer Requests for this week: Praise, that I was able to get my neck and back fixed so easily! Thanks for spring finally coming. Hmm…that’s great, I can’t really think of any challenges except I’m still looking for a way to get Malari medicine. I went to a clinic on Saturday and they spent half an hour explaining to me that it’s illegal, that they can’t prescribe it to me or they could lose their job, etc, etc, etc. (Ug, one thing that drives me crazy about Japanese people is that they’re incapable of just saying “Hi” or “eeay,” yes or no. They just can’t say no to a customer! Don’t EXPLAIN it to me! I can only understand half of what you’re saying anyway! Yes or no, that’s all I want!) Apparently there is a place in Osaka I can get a prescription, but it’s kind of hard to get to and really expensive and they don’t speak English, etc, etc, etc. But by golly I am not getting Malaria, so I am going to get that medicine! I guess, please pray for that.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
Laura